Doctors' right to refuse to perform abortions

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6968.1582a (Published 10 December 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1582

Law doesn't include GPs and junior doctors

  1. Dennis Cox, Clinical teacher
  1. Unit of General Practice, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ.

    EDITOR,—C G B Simpson believes that doctors' right to refuse to perform abortions should be curtailed.1 2 This right is enshrined in section 4 (pargraph 1) of the Abortion Act 1967. Although this section says that no person need participate in an abortion if he or she has a conscientious objection, the House of Lords ruled that this applied only to people performing abortions. In two cases it made clear that neither secretaries nor nurses had a legal right to refuse to participate in abortions.3 Despite this general practitioners and junior doctors still believe that this paragraph of the act applies to them; this is probably not the case.

    With regard to general practitioners, is there a legal obligation to sign the relevant green form? General practitioners' terms of service state that “a doctor shall render to his patients … services of the type usually provided by General Practitioners … arranging for the referral of patients as appropriate.”4 It has been argued that this means that the general practitioner has a legal obligation to pass on the patient to a consultant gynaecologist with a view to obtaining a termination of pregnancy.5 (This would be the service normally provided by general practitioners.) Provided that the conditions on the green form are met, the general practitioner can take no refuge in the clause of the Abortion Act permitting conscientious objection and has a legal duty to sign the form.

    As far as junior doctors are concerned, their position is similar to that of the secretary in the Janaway case; provided that they are not taking direct responsibility for performing the abortion they probably have a duty to clerk and deal with the patient as they would any other.


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