The GMC is threatening to strike off Catholic doctors who refuse to carry out abortions or refer the ‘patient’ on. So why have our bishops remained silent?

Medical students recite the Hippocratic Oath (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Two apparently very different news items turn out, with a little further investigation, to illuminate one of the issues which will, I suspect, more and more delineate an arena within which Catholics are already coming under powerful secular pressure to lay aside their beliefs. This process has been going on for some years, of course. Sometimes Catholics have withstood these pressures: on other occasions (eg, the capitulation of our own hierarchy to the effective secularisation of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth — or have I missed something?) they have not.

The two news items which have set me thinking are the appointment of Bishop Samuel Aquila to the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado; the second is a consultation currently being conducted by the British General Medical Council (GMC) on medical ethics. What have these two to do with one another? Well, a little investigation of Archbishop-designate Aquila reveals, as I supposed it might, that he has been taking a prominent part in the opposition to President Obama’s current onslaught against religious liberty: the following is from a recent pastoral letter:

The US Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that almost all employers, including Catholic employers, will be forced to offer their employees health coverage which includes sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. In addition, almost all health insurers will be forced to include those so-called “services” in the health policies they write. And almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as a part of their policies… I call on every priest and deacon in the Diocese of Fargo to encourage the faithful to join me and the Bishops of the United States in speaking out on this violation of religious freedom and conscience. Every Catholic has the responsibility to promote the dignity of human life and religious freedom. Let us work together to preserve the freedoms our forefathers established in our constitution…

Well, nothing more than you might expect from a bishop the Pope thinks worthy to succeed Archbishop Chaput; no more, too, than many other US bishops are saying. I quote it for my English readers as an example of the kind of thing I hope our own bishops will soon be saying in defence of Catholic doctors who have been told by the GMC, under the heading “personal beliefs and medical practice”, that “You must not unfairly discriminate against patients by allowing your personal views to affect adversely your professional relationship with them or the treatment you provide or arrange”, and that “While we do not impose unnecessary restrictions on doctors, we expect them to be prepared to set aside their personal beliefs where this is necessary in order to provide care in line with the principles in Good Medical Practice.”

The Christian Medical Fellowship comments that it is “most concerned by the suggestion that the GMC expects doctors ‘to be prepared to set aside their personal beliefs where this is necessary to provide care in line with the principles in Good Medical Practice’,” and it insists that “the implication that doctors should either act contrary to deeply-held personal and moral beliefs or face discipline is inappropriate, heavyhanded and displays a lack of respect for doctors as professionals.” They point out that to expect doctors to refer patients to another doctor to carry out a procedure they regard as unethical is to override “a doctor’s lawful right to conscientious objection especially with respect to abortion referrals”:

Many doctors believe that to refer someone for a procedure they believe is unethical is morally equivalent to participating in and condoning that procedure. It would also fall foul of the conscientious objection clause in the 1967 Abortion Act, because to refer is to participate in abortion. Referral is not merely an administrative act.(my emphasis).

Now, the Christian Medical Fellowship is an admirable outfit, tireless in its defence of Christian medical ethics. But it speaks only for itself and for those it can convince by force of argument. Although not a Catholic body, this is not the first time it has defended Catholic ethical teachings. This brings me back to Bishop Aquila, and to that admirable fightback by the US Catholic bishops as a body against President Obama’s attempt to force Catholic medical institutions to behave grossly unethically, in very much the same way the GMC wants to do with British doctors, who it has threatened with being struck off if they refuse to follow its “Guidance” on “personal beliefs and medical practice” — which in the case of Catholic doctors means, in brief, that they must either be prepared to carry out abortions or, if they refuse, to refer the “patient” (in other words, the perfectly healthy but pregnant woman) to another doctor who is prepared to kill the child she is carrying.

This GMC document is still at the consultation stage, so maybe we shouldn’t expect our bishops to be weighing in with any US-style full-on opposition just yet. But one of them has at least noticed what is going on; Bishop Tom Williams, chairman of the bishops’ conference healthcare reference group, is urging Catholic healthcare professionals to respond to the GMC consultation. “The draft consultation document,” he says, “does not have a balanced or positive appreciation of the value of religion for patients or for the importance of requiring, and hence permitting, doctors to make conscientious ethical decisions. Both religion and conscientious objection seem to be treated as problems to be minimised and circumscribed as much as possible.” I’m not sure that Bishop Williams has fully appreciated the extent of the threat against Catholic doctors: they could, after all, end up being struck off. If the document isn’t radically amended, we will need something considerably stronger than this. Will we get it?