Friday, October 10, 2008

Catholic & Secular Values in the British National Health Service (2)

In December I wrote about conflict over reproductive ethics at "John and Lizzie's," a well-known Catholic hospital in London.

The Hospital of St. John and St. Elizabeth, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1856, is known as a celebrity hospital. Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Kate Moss and Heather Mills-McCartney have all had babies there. The media describes John and Lizzie’s as "the poshest place to push." The hospital is under the governance of the Catholic church, but has been operating as an independent entity, funded by the NHS, self-paying private patients, private health insurance companies, and charitable donations.

In 2007, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, had laid down the law to John and Lizzie’s: “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."

In February 2008, Cardinal O'Connor asked for, and received, the resignation of the entire Board. Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, a former Army Chief of Staff, and Vice President and Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an ancient Catholic military order that now focuses on medical charity work around the world, was appointed as the new Board chair.

This week the Board adopted a new code of ethics. In accord with Catholic teaching the code specifies that euthanasia, sex change operations, IVF, pre-natal testing by amniocentesis, sterilizations, fitting of IUDs, and direct provision of abortion are forbidden. It does not mention, however, referrals for abortion, prescriptions for contraceptives or the morning after pill. This means that doctors and nurses at the hospital and in the National Health Service practice based at the hospital could refer patients elsewhere for these services without violating the hospital's ethics code.

Nicholas Bellord, of the Restituta Group (named for St. Restituta, who was martyred in the 4th century, but miraculously saved from fire by the intervention of an angel) which has been lobbying hospital officials to retain its Catholic pro-life policies, complained that "It will be possible for a woman to attend this hospital and be counseled to have an abortion and for her to believe, not unreasonably, that she has the blessing of the Roman Catholic church."

Lord Guthrie spoke about how doctors and nurses would operate under the new code as follows:
"The confidentiality of their consultations with patients must be respected, as must the confidentiality of the advice which they offer to patients in accordance with their professional and legal obligation.

The hospital, however, cannot condone or permit practices in its name which conflict with Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life or respect for the human person."
As I understand his comments, Lord Guthrie is doing an admirable piece of ethical balance. His assertion that the hospital cannot "permit practices in its name..." clearly affirms Catholic teachings. But his comments about the staff's "professional and legal obligation[s]" recognizes pluralism.

In the U.S. fundamentalist terrorists have murdered abortion providers and intimidated those who oppose them. If I understand Lord Guthrie correctly I see him as doing God's work. He has found a path to fidelity to his church's teachings without casting those of good conscience who hold different views as murderers. We in the U.S. need more of Lord Guthrie's combination of fidelity to our beliefs and pragmatitic acceptance of of differing moral perspectives. That's what democratic pluralism requires.

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