The Catholic Doctor

One of a series of booklets
aimed at helping young Catholic doctors by
Dr Anne-Marie Williams, Drs Adrian and Josephine Treloar

Produced by the


Young Catholics entering the Health Care professions hear so much in public debates about abortion and euthanasia, amongst other ethical issues, that career prospects may seem very frightening. That there are real difficulties cannot be denied, but this should not deter applicants.

Precisely what many families need at times of crisis and illness is the care and attention that can be given by doctors and nurses who are guided by sound principles and the love of Christ. People need to have confidence in their carers without the fear of being a 'burden to society' or having their 'quality of life' judged as worthless. Our Catholic faith teaches about the value of each human being as an individual person of great importance. It also helps us to understand the worth of suffering and the effectiveness of the prayers of those who are sick. We therefore treat the sick with great dignity and respect. It is no coincidence that many of the great hospitals in the country were founded by religious orders and that the Catholic Church is the largest provider of health care in the world. Nonetheless being a Catholic Doctor is not allways easy.

In a career structure which is dependent upon the approval of seniors, refusing to participate in some procedures can be profoundly career negative. The attitudes of fellow doctors and nurses can also be extremely stressful and upsetting.

As educated people, we need to be able to defend our position calmly and logically. Our growth in medical knowledge has to be paralleled by a growth in faith. The Holy Father has explained at length in Veritatis Splendor that our consciences should be educated. Confusion, or a failure to understand the Church's teaching, should be met with a renewed attempt to increase our knowledge of the truth. Christ's teaching was hard for people in the Gospels to accept and continues to be rejected in the modern day world. Once the logic of the teaching is followed through it is found, not only to be acceptable, but to be very beautiful. To this end, it is helpful to seek, or form, a group, perhaps within the training hospital, which can study the clarity of the church's documents on ethical issues. Such a group can be an invaluable source of mutual support.

Our Christian vocation in the medical professions needs to be lived with integrity. We cannot be Christians just on Sunday. It would not make sense to separate our faith and professional life. We cannot recommend abortion, for example, as it is a mortal sin. The deliberate termination of a pregnancy has gained acceptance in society since the passing of the 1967 abortion act, initially for "serious" reasons but increasingly for "social reasons" (a euphemism for abortions of convenience), yet the law actually states that abortion is illegal except in certain circumstances. Abortion is sometimes thought of as a woman's right because attitudes have changed since the passing of the Abortion Law. With the widespread expectation for abortion on demand, recently acknowledged by the House of Lords as fact, the position of any doctors opposed to abortion becomes increasingly difficult.

Pointed questions have been asked at medical school interviews (although they should not be). An article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine ((1989) 82: 288-291), looking at some of the failings of medical student selection cited an example of three candidates from the same Catholic school being asked how they would deal with an 18 year unmarried girl requesting an abortion and if their religion would raise any difficulties. They also observed that all three failed to gain admission .
A trainee in Obstetrics and Gynaecology was refused an appointment because she would not perform abortions. Abortions are sometimes specified in job descriptions, therefore if you are not prepared to do the job, there is no point applying. There are only a handful of Catholic Obstetricians left in the UK, which reduces a woman's choice to be cared for by someone who does not have death on his or her hands.

Anaesthetists may be scheduled for lists including abortions. Sometimes a less subtle approach is used:- intimidation. Two junior doctors were told by a registrar that they were unlikely to get a registrar's post if they did not change their attitude to abortion.

Although the Act makes provisions for conscientious objectors in Section 4(1), life may be made difficult for them by means of embarrassment, intimidation, threats of bad references, discrimination at appointment and the occasional dismissal.

Many women report never having had anyone seriously encourage them to do anything other than just go ahead with an abortion. Patients even report being advised to have an abortion, when it had never crossed their mind to take such a course of action and that they feel pressurised into abortions at an emotionally very vulnerable time. It is therefore essential that Catholic doctors and nurses are around to restore the balance. By listening to the patient, with the benefit of our solid formation we are in an excellent position to understand what is going on in their troubled souls. It is important to remain sympathetic and the advice we give must be objective and true to their interests. While we may not stop a woman from having an abortion if she is determined, we will be able to at least ensure that she has really thought through the issues clearly and calmly and not just panicked into a decision which she may later regret. Refusing to be involved with abortions is difficult and does require determination and grace from God as well as the support of like minded colleagues, wherever possible.

It is difficult, but not impossible for doctors who do not prescribe the pill to find General Practice posts. If we refuse to fit a coil or to prescribe the pill for a patient we are not imposing our morals. In fact, by asking us to fit a coil, a patient is asking us to help them in what we consider to be an immoral act. If we agree, then they have imposed their morals upon us. If we refuse, they are not prevented from seeing another doctor. We know that it would be wrong to provide a murderer with a gun as it would be complicity with an immoral act and thus not licit. The same argument of complicity can be applied to the provision of contraception for patients.

A Natural Family Planning service within a practice can increase patients' choice. Some patients show an interest. Others may be prepared to wait to see another doctor. This may cause extra work, and even annoyance to the other partners, but they are pleased to facilitate things once they learn that we want no share in the profits from contraceptive work.

As doctors, we have the honour to be let intimately into the lives of others. We often see people at times of crisis and about to make very important decisions in their lives. The responsibility we have should not therefore be taken lightly. The opportunities to offer them sound advice can really help them.

'A unique responsibility belongs to health care personnel: doctors, pharmacists, nurses, chaplains, men and women religious, administrators and volunteers. Their profession calls for them to be guardians and servants of human life. ... Absolute respect for every innocent human life also requires the exercise of conscientious objection in relation to procured abortion and euthanasia. (E.V., n.89).
We work and live alongside others and, reminded by this International Year of Toleration, cannot obstruct others' freedom of choice. In exchange, we have the right to demand the same toleration and understanding. It is possible to live by our conscience without imposing it upon others. Hopefully our example will show that the Christian way of life provides true solutions.

Helpful contacts

SPUC can be contacted for advice if there is any potential legal difficulty as they will give advice to health workers and may be prepared to back you up in any proceedings. They can be contacted at 5/6 St Mathhew Street, Westminster, London SW1P 2JT.

The Catholic Health Care Commission has been set up in Glasgow and advice on career and practical issues can be sought through Rena Mc Vey at the Diocesan Offices at 196 Clyde Street, Glasgow G1 4JY. Tel 0141 226 5898

May 1995