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End in sight for doctors' right to deny abortions

THE right of doctors to refuse to refer women for abortions on conscientious grounds is under threat from the Council of Europe.

A draft resolution would end the opt-out and compel medical staff to carry out the procedure against their wishes if patients have nowhere else to go for the treatment.

It also calls for a register of doctors who object to abortion on conscientious grounds and a complaints mechanism for women who feel aggrieved by the refusal of a doctor to grant an abortion or perform the procedure directly.

The resolution will be put to a vote of assembly members tomorrow. If adopted it would put pressure on member states to ban conscientious objection as a protection for doctors.

In Britain, medical staff who object to the procedure can refuse to become involved and instead give information to patients.

The resolution calls for all doctors to be forced to direct women to alternative centres willing to carry out abortions.

Politicians behind the move say growing numbers of doctors are refusing to become involved in abortions, depriving women, particularly from poor backgrounds, of the treatment. In the Lazio region of Italy, which covers Rome, about 86pc of doctors refuse to deal with abortions.

Baroness Royall, former UK Labour government health spokesman, has said British doctors are increasingly shunning the practice.

The proposal has been drawn up by the council's British Socialist member Christine McCafferty, the former Labour MP for the Calder Valley who lost her seat at the general election. Ms McCafferty said members feared the use of conscientious objection affected women on "low incomes or living in rural areas".

She said: "There is a need to balance the right of conscientious objection of an individual with the responsibility of the profession."

Her proposal comes two years after the council adopted a resolution to recognise abortion as a universal human right, and to grant unrestricted access to the procedure.

Anthony Ozimic, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, criticised the resolution.


"Council of Europe member states will be under pressure effectively to abolish in law and practice conscientious objection within medicine," he said.

Dr Michael Jarmulowicz of the Catholic Medical Association said: "Every individual of whatever faith or none has to act according to their conscience. If they don't, they are doing wrong."

Dr Andrew Fergusson from the Christian Medical Fellowship said clamping down on conscientious objection would "drive out of medicine the very people we want to see there".

The Strasbourg-based council was set up in 1949 to further European integration by harmonising human rights laws. It bases its work on the European Convention on Human Rights and includes the European Court of Human Rights, to which Europeans can bring cases if they believe a member state has violated their rights.

The resolution must be ratified by the Council of Europe's 47-strong Committee of Ministers, including UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, before it becomes formal policy. (© Daily Telegraph, London)