Cardinal attacked for forcing hospital to obey ethics code

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Medical organisations have rounded on a Roman Catholic hospital which has been thrown into disarray after the Archbishop of Westminster ordered its board to resign in a dispute over the provision of advice on abortion and contraception.

The British Medical Association yesterday criticised Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, after the Cardinal dramatically increased the pressure on the private Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, of which he is patron, to implement a new code of ethics.

The BMA said doctors at the hospital were in effectbeing required to follow two codes of ethics – that proposed by the hospital and the statutory code enforced by the General Medical Council, which specifies that doctors may not let their own beliefs interfere with the care of patients.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said: "It really does put doctors in a very difficult position. We don't believe they can follow two codes of ethics."

Dr Nathanson added that while a patient would not expect to go to a Catholic hospital for an abortion, if she were pregnant and her foetus turned out to have severe abnormalities and she wanted to consider an abortion "she would have the right to information and help".

A spokeswoman for the General Medical Council said doctors with a conscientious objection to abortion were not required to refer patients for the operation but they were obliged to provide them with information to enable them to obtain treatment.

"They must treat patients with respect whatever their life choices are. We are quite clear about our guidance. I am not sure how they [the hospital] would balance that," she said.

The 150-bed hospital in St John's Wood provides private treatment to its well-heeled north London clientele, including the celebrities Kate Moss and Cate Blanchett, the profits from which are used to fund its charitable hospice caring for 600 patients a year.

The Cardinal ordered the hospital to draw up a code of practice to reflect Catholic teaching on matters such as abortion, contraception and gender reassignment operations in mid-2006, after a boardroom dispute over the admission of a local NHS GP practice on to the hospital's premises. The plan had distressed staunch Catholics on the board, who argued that the provision of services such as abortion and contraception would undermine the religious ethos of the hospital.

Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's solution was to produce a code as a way of solving the dispute and maintaining the institution as a Catholic hospital. But it was opposed by the hospital's Medical Advisory Committee and its introduction last December triggered the resignations of at least four directors, including Lord Fitzalan Howard and a GP, Dr Martin Scurr, followed a week later by the chairman, Lord Bridgeman.

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, former chief of the Army, was appointed chairman last week and will hold his first board meeting on Monday. A spokesman for the Cardinal's office confirmed that the Cardinal had asked the members of the old board to resign "in light of the recent difficulties" and to "enable the new chairman to begin his office with the freedom to go about ensuring the future well-being of this Catholic hospital."