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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Why are Christian campaigners trying so hard to mislead us?

By Terry Sanderson

For a brief moment last week I was alarmed by a story in the Daily Telegraph headed “Catholic nurses use Equality Act to protect their pro-life beliefs.”

Reading on, the alarm grew even further:

“Two Roman Catholic nurses have won the right not to work in an abortion clinic after they accused the NHS of breaching equality laws. The case is believed to be the first in which the Equality Act has been used successfully to defend a “pro-life” position as a philosophical belief and could have implications for other Christian medical staff.”

How did this happen without our knowing about it? Has the legal tide turned in favour of the Christians who are constantly crying “religious discrimination” in courts and tribunals up and down the land – often on the flimsiest pretext? What was the judge’s reasoning? What were the arguments in court?

Let’s read a bit further into the story. Apparently two “Christian nurses” were transferred from one hospital to another – one that happened to provide a weekly abortion clinic. The Telegraph reported:

“They were required to administer two drugs to pregnant women — Mifepristone and Misoprostol — to cause an induced miscarriage. The process, known as “early medical abortion”, is an increasingly common method of terminating a pregnancy and does not involve surgery. When the nurses discovered that they were participating in abortions they objected but were told by managers that they must continue with the work. One hospital manager allegedly told the pair: ‘What would happen if we allowed all the Christian nurses to refuse?’”

Now we get to the bit of the Telegraph story that throws the whole thing into confusion:

“The hospital later backed down after the Thomas More Legal Centre, which specialises in religious discrimination cases, took up their case. After receiving a letter from the centre, the hospital initially told the nurses that they would be excused from administering the abortion-inducing drugs but would have to remain working at the clinic.

The nurses’ lawyer, Neil Addison, wrote again to the hospital stating that the nurses would still be “morally complicit in abortion” if they continued to work in the clinic as nurses in any capacity. The hospital eventually conceded and the nurses were allocated to other duties.

Mr Addison, director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, argued that the NHS had wrongly denied the nurses their right as conscientious objectors not to take part in abortions, which is set out in the 1967 Abortion Act. He also invoked the Equality Act 2010. In a move that is believed to be a legal first, Mr Addison claimed that the nurses’ belief in the sanctity of life from conception onwards was “a philosophical belief” protected under the Equality Act. Therefore any attempt to pressure them into working in the clinic would be illegal.

“This particular interpretation of the Equality Act has never, to my knowledge, been argued before,” Mr Addison said. “However since the courts have accepted that the philosophical belief in global warming is protected under equality legislation, there seems no reason why belief that human life begins at conception should not be equally protected.”

By invoking the Equality Act, the nurses would be given greater protection, as it carries the potential threat of discrimination, victimisation, or harassment action at an employment tribunal. Mr Addison said he felt “privileged” to have represented the “brave” nurses.

“Taking the stand they did took immense moral courage and I am delighted that they have been successful,” he said.

So, let’s get this straight. There was no court case, no test of the Equality Act and the nurses were already protected from participation in terminations on the grounds of conscience by the 1967 Abortion Act.

So what actually happened here and what has changed? Well, Mr Addison sent a threatening letter to the hospital. The rest is pure speculation. He has not established in any court, as the story craftily implies, that “belief in the sanctity of life from conception onwards was “a philosophical belief” protected under the Equality Act”.

Many will have concluded from this carefully worded story that Christians had somehow won new rights under the Equality legislation. In fact, all that had happened was that their solicitor had reminded the hospital that the nurses had the right to excuse themselves from these duties under the Abortion Act 1967. Is there some kind of agenda here – or am I being paranoid?

My paranoia was reinforced when Pulse magazine (aimed at GPs) told us that “New guidance from the Medical Defence Union quotes a letter from a GMC official suggesting that a ‘tactful’ offer to pray could be appropriate, after the GMC issued a formal warning to Dr Richard Scott, a GP inMargate,Kent, for discussing his faith with a patient.”

This “new guidance” idea was taken up by several Christian websites as being a fresh and welcome development giving GPs carte blanche to foist their religion on to their patients. In fact, there is nothing new in this “guidance”. It simply restates what has already been stated on the topic by the General Medical Council. It all rested on a letter sent in 2009.

Later in the Pulse story, it says:

The GMC said it stood by the letter from Jane O’Brien, Assistant Director for Standards and Fitness to Practise, published in the Daily Telegraph in 2009, which states: ‘Nothing in the GMC’s guidance Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice precludes doctors from praying with their patients.’

GMC chief executive Niall Dickson this week acknowledged that it could be ‘challenging’ to know if a patient wanted to discuss religion. “Conversations about faith should not be a starting point,” he said. “Doctors can however sensitively explore whether a patient may wish to discuss their own faith when it is appropriate to their care and then provide spiritual support if this is what the patient wants.”

The latest advice follows the case of Dr Richard Scott, who made national headlines in May when he said he would formally reject an official warning from the GMC for discussing his faith with a patient. Dr Scott told Pulse he received, and rejected, the official warning this week, and now ‘fully expects’ to face a public hearing.

Pulse says that “Pressure is now intensifying on the GMC to offer definitive guidance on the issue”, which is, more or less, an admission that there is nothing new at all in this story.

At least Pulse quoted Dr Shaba Nabi, a GP inBristol, as saying: ‘To even consider bringing religion into consultations is unacceptable. It’s as bizarre as bringing up witchcraft or folklore. I’m extremely respectful of patients that are religious. That is their personal belief, but we shouldn’t bring our personal beliefs into consultations.”

Then comes this panic-mongering story from the Catholic Herald which is headed, “Pharmacists who object to handing out pill could lose job.”

Such was the reaction to this story — with Catholic pharmacists around the country up in arms that they would be forced to abuse their “religious conscience” and actually supply contraceptives to women who wanted them — that the General Pharmaceutical Council was forced to issue a statement clarifying that despite what the Catholic Herald said, the conscience clause remained unaltered.

Published Fri, 19 Aug 2011