A fashionable London hospital is bracing itself for more resignations next week in a growing revolt against tough new rules drawn up by the Catholic Church barring doctors from performing abortions or prescribing contraception to patients.
Two board members of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in north London have already resigned in protest at the decision to accept a code of medical ethics issued by Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
This week the hospital's chairman, Lord Bridgeman, a senior member of the Conservative Party, is expected to follow them.
The medical code bars doctors from offering any service which conflicts with Catholic teaching on the value of human life and on sexual ethics. This includes sex-change operations, providing contraception, abortion referrals and IVF treatment. Solicitors and management consultants warned that implementing such rules would affect profitability, and the General Medical Council deemed them unworkable.
The Catholic Church has recently stepped up its campaign to impose its own moral values on healthcare and in other areas of social policy
Last month Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor personally identified himself with the campaign when he tried to block new laws on embryo research by directly lobbying Catholic MPs.
Other recent interventions by the Roman Catholic Church include a battle to preserve selective admissions to church schools and opposing new rules allowing gay couples to adopt.
But it is in hospitals and GP practices where the battle between secular and Catholic values is hardest fought, as some Catholic doctors refuse to refer patients to non-Catholic doctors who can carry out abortions, sex changes and IVF treatment.
Senior figures in the Catholic Church were enraged when it was revealed that doctors associated with the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth were not only performing abortions but also carrying out sex change operations.
This prompted Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor to write to the hospital demanding its code be strengthened so that such practices are explicitly banned.
Writing to the hospital board chairman, Lord Bridgeman, the Cardinal said: "There must be clarity that the hospital, being a Catholic hospital with a distinct vision of what is truly in the interests of human persons, cannot offer its patients, non-Catholic or Catholic, the whole range of services routinely accepted by many in modern secular society as being in a patient's best interest."
Last month, Dr Martin Scurr, one of the directors who has already tendered his resignation, accused the hospital board of placing Catholic values above patient care. He said: "My complete commitment is to excellence in healthcare; as I have said repeatedly we are now in an era where the Catholic Church must withdraw from involvement in frontline healthcare here in the UK, as it appears to be unable to reach the degree of tolerance that has been reached elsewhere in the world."
Dr Scarr said he had "no trust" in those members of the board who were also members of the Knights of Malta and had "gathered themselves into a subgroup with a separate agenda".
Of the Cardinal, he wrote: "I am convinced that the Cardinal has been badly advised, as so often has happened with the Catholic Church. Expert advisers have been chosen who give the hierarchy of the church the answers they wish to hear ... in the matter of modern medical care the cardinal has chosen to listen to individuals who have no specific expertise in that arena."
Dr Scurr and Lord Mark Fitzalan-Howard, another member of the board, voted against implementing the Cardinal's new code.
Lord Fitzalan-Howard said in his resignation letter that he had voted in favour of following the conclusions of the hospital's independent advisers, who had advised that adopting the new code of ethics would serious damage the hospital's profitability because it meant the hospital could not offer services that infringed the teachings of the Catholic Church. He said he had to resign because he could not "pursue a solution" that did not have the approval of the Cardinal.
The hospital, founded in 1856, is funded by the NHS, self-paying private patients, private health insurance companies and charitable donations. It welcomes patients of any or no religion and its north London location has attracted celebrities living in St John's Wood, Hampstead and Primrose Hill. Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Kate Moss and Heather Mills-McCartney have given birth there.Reuse content