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20 October 2011

An Important Case for Freedom

An Important Case for Freedom

On 15 November the Central London Employment Tribunal will commence hearing the case of Margaret Forrester v Central London NHS Trust. She is being represented by the Thomas More Legal Centre. This is likely to be an important case, not just for Christians, but for everyone who considers freedom of speech to be a vital civil liberty.  

Margaret Forrester was employed by the NHS as a mental health worker and in the course of a conversation with a colleague who worked as a receptionist organising abortion appointments she gave her colleague a booklet entitled Forsaken in which five women who have had abortions talk about their experience of abortion and how it affected them.  

A few days after the booklet was given to the receptionist Margaret was suspended and subsequently disciplined for "gross misconduct". The wording of the disciplinary charge against her read: "You distributed material which individuals may find offensive." This was described in the statement of case presented to the Tribunal as a charge which is "so vague as to be meaningless". 

Margaret was handed a final written warning and told she would be moved to another department. She subsequently objected to the move and was then sacked.   

It is very important to note that the booklet in question was not given to any NHS patient, nor was it ever suggested by Margaret that it should be given to any patient. The conversation between Margaret and her colleague was cordial and the colleague did not object to receiving the booklet and has never suggested that it was forced on her. Indeed the NHS are not even calling her as a witness in the case. 

The booklet simply consists of five women talking about their own experiences of abortion and how they felt about it then and afterwards. It does not say that abortion is a sin, though some of the women suggest that is how they now regard it. The booklet does not contain any graphic images or descriptions of abortion. Margaret had not given this or any similar booklet to any colleagues in the NHS before and had never been told that she was not allowed to do so. 

In their defence presented to the Tribunal the NHS states that their reason for disciplining Margaret is because the Forsaken booklet offered a "religious view" on abortion. In other words, they admit they objected to it because it is religious. They objected to it because one of the women who has had an abortion said that she now regards what she did as a sin. They ignore the fact that as a mental health worker Margaret had to be concerned with whether women who have had abortions would suffer mental health problems. 

Even supporters of abortion should be concerned about this case because it goes to the heart of the issue of free speech within the NHS and within society as a whole. It is astonishing that it has gone as far as it has since even if the NHS were justified in disagreeing with what Margaret did they should simply have told her not to do it again. If she had then disobeyed they would at least have had a legitimate argument that she had disobeyed a reasonable management instruction. There has been no attempt by the NHS to mediate a settlement even though Margaret and her advisers have indicated their willingness to enter into mediation if it was sincerely offered. 

It would appear that pro-abortion elements in the NHS are determined to push this case because they want to establish that pro-life opinions cannot be expressed by NHS staff. Also, interestingly, part of the NHS claim against Margaret is that she was attempting to influence the opinions of the receptionist at the abortion clinic. Margaret disputes this, but in any event Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights encompasses the right to "receive" information and ideas as well as the right to "impart" them. So the receptionist has as much right to hear Margaret's opinions as Margaret has to express them.  

Please remember to support and pray for Margaret and the Thomas More Legal Centre during the week of 15 November.