Doctors and nurses wishing to practise in sexual and reproductive health have been granted more liberty to exercise freedom of conscience under new guidelines published earlier this year.
The Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH), a faculty of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), has relaxed its stance on conscience in new guidelines issued in April so that those with an ethical objection to certain procedures can now obtain qualifications which they were previously excluded from.
Christian doctors and nurses in the UK are practising in an environment that is increasingly hostile to their beliefs and values. We have accordingly come to expect new constraints on our freedom of conscience almost as a matter of course. So this is a refreshing backtrack by the College.
In April 2014 I highlighted the fact that the FRSH was barring doctors and nurses with pro-life views from receiving its degrees and diplomas and may also be breaking the law (see also here). The story was later picked up by the Telegraph.
Under the previous guidelines, now removed from the FSRH website but still accessible in the Telegraph, doctors and nurses who had a moral objection to prescribing ‘contraceptives’ which can act by killing human embryos (levonelle, ellaOne, IUCDs etc) were barred from receiving diplomas in sexual and reproductive health even if they undertook the necessary training.
The wording was as follows (emphasis mine):
‘Completing the syllabus means willingness during training to prescribe all forms of hormonal contraception, including emergency, and willingness to counsel and refer, if appropriate, for all intrauterine methods…Failure to complete the syllabus renders candidates ineligible for the award of a FSRH Diploma.’
‘Doctors who hold moral or religious reservations about any contraceptive methods will be unable to fulfil the syllabus for the membership … or speciality training…This will render them ineligible for the award of the examination or completion of training certificates.’
However, the new guidance grants much more freedom.
It begins by underlining the faculty’s commitment to diversity:
‘The FSRH welcomes and values having a diverse membership, representing a wide range of personal, religious and non-religious views and beliefs.’
It then underlines the fact that there is already statutory protection for healthcare professionals (HCPs) to opt out of abortions and procedures authorised under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFEA):
‘There are currently two specific statutory protections for HCPs who have a conscientious objection 1) to participating in abortion (Abortion Act 1967, s.4) 2) to technological procedures to achieve conception and pregnancy (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, s.38) .’
But it also recognises that both the Human Rights Act 1998 and Equality Act 2010 offer some conscience protection in areas other than abortion and IVF:
‘The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. Article 9 of the ECHR protects “the freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes … to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”’
‘Part 5 of the Equality Act 2010 sets out provisions for non-discrimination in employment. Specifically, s.39 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of “protected characteristics” (of which religious belief is one) and places an obligation on employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate religious beliefs.’
The guidance recognises that the rights to ‘freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ and to ‘religious beliefs’ are not absolute, but qualified, and also that NHS employers may interpret these in different ways than the faculty, but this is nonetheless a significant step forward.
The guidance says that it applies to all FSRH qualifications and training, but a closer reading suggests that those seeking to sit the membership examination of the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare (MFSRH) will need to undergo ‘practical assessment of the provision of contraception (all methods including emergency contraception)’ and those seeking a Letter of Competence in Intrauterine Techniques (LoC IUT) will need to demonstrate ‘practical competence in the relevant live procedures’.
However, with respect to the Diploma of the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare (DFSRH and NDFSRH), holder must simply be ‘competent and willing to advise on all forms of contraception and manage SRH consultations, including providing evidence-based information on the options for unplanned pregnancy’. But there is no duty actually to provide all treatments.
‘The FSRH requires all Diplomates to provide patients with the full range of contraception choices, including emergency contraception and support of a woman with an unplanned pregnancy and appropriate onward referral. HCPs who plan to opt out of providing aspects of care because of their personal beliefs may still be awarded the Diploma, or recertified, if they can demonstrate commitment in their practice to the principles of care in section 5 of this document. For example, if a HCP chooses not to prescribe emergency contraception because of their personal beliefs, she/he has a personal responsibility to ensure that arrangements are made for a prescription to be issued by a colleague without delay, ensuring that the care and outcomes of the patient are never compromised or delayed.’
Although some would see referral to another doctor or nurse as a form of complicity, this is nonetheless a big improvement on the previous guidance.
Previously doctors or nurses who refused to fit coils or prescribe the morning after pill (MAP) were also barred from receiving the diploma signifying expertise in the management of infertility, cervical cancer or sexually transmitted infections. This effectively meant that many thousands of doctors and nurses were not able to obtain qualifications to pursue a career in gynaecology and sexual health.
This is no longer the case.
Quite why the faculty has relaxed its guidance is not clear, but I wonder if they have been conferring with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) who also similarly relaxed their guidance on dispensing drugs after receiving submissions from Christian Medical Fellowship and the Christian Institute earlier this year.
The GPhC’s attention was drawn to the fact that their proposed new guidance might well be illegal under Equality legislation (I made the same point about the FSRH in 2014).
The GPhC backtracked after the Christian Institute made it clear, in pre-action legal correspondence exchanged with the Council’s lawyers, that they ‘were fully prepared to litigate’.
Perhaps the FSRH also, on reflection, thought it wise to protect themselves by erring on the side of caution and taking themselves out of the legal firing line.
However, whatever the reason, the climb down is most welcome and will enable many more doctors and nurses to obtain diplomas in sexual and reproductive health. That can only be good for patient care.