General Medical Council drafts new guidelines on conscientious objection and the prescription of contraceptives

24 May, 2012

The General Medical Council (GMC) has drafted new guidelines which state that doctors could be struck off for refusing to prescribe contraceptive pills to unmarried women.  The guidelines state that it would be ‘discriminatory’ for a doctor to refuse to prescribe the pill or the morning-after pill, on the grounds that they do not believe in sex before marriage. The British Humanist Association (BHA) welcomes the new guidelines.

Entitled ‘Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice’, the draft guidelines tell doctors that they ‘cannot be willing to provide married women with contraception but unwilling to prescribe it for unmarried women’.  This would be a breach of the new rules, as it would involve doctors ‘refusing to treat a particular group of patients ’.  The rules also state that it is against the law for doctors to refuse to carry out gender reassignment surgery, as this would also involve discriminating against a particular group of patients.  Doctors are warned that ‘serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk’.  At the moment these new guidelines are only a draft, and doctors are being encouraged to suggest changes to the document before the final version is published later this year.

The guidelines have angered some Christian campaigners, who claim that they involve discrimination against Christian doctors.  Bishop Tom Williams, of the Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool, claims that the new guidelines risk creating an ‘atmosphere of fear’ in which doctors would be ‘prohibited from ever expressing their own religion’.  Dr Peter Saunders, the chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, claims that the guidelines are an example of ‘legislation being used to marginalise Christian health professionals in Britain’.  However, the reality is that refusing to prescribe contraceptives on religious grounds could marginalise the interests of patients.

The controversy over this issue is similar to that which took place last year over the new rules implemented by the General Pharmaceutical Council, which stated that pharmacists had to warn their employers if they were unhappy about prescribing the morning-after pill.  Some Christian pharmacists claimed that they could lose their jobs if they refused to hand out the morning-after pill to patients.  The BHA then argued that ‘it should not be permissible for service providers to allow the religious beliefs of their staff to dictate the nature or level of service provided to the service user’.

The BHA welcomes the GMC’s proposed new guidelines, believing that medical services should be delivered without discrimination based on religion.  Doctors are already allowed to refuse to carry out abortions on ethical grounds, but they are obliged to refer patients to a colleague who is willing to carry out the procedure.  The BHA believes that there should be no more exemptions for doctors based on religion.  Pavan Dhaliwal, the BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented that ‘a doctor’s role is to serve the interests of their patients, not to impose their own religious views.  If it is medically in the interests of a patient to receive a particular treatment, it is wrong for that doctor to advise them not to take it purely on religious grounds.  Individuals should have the right to express their religion, but not in a way which infringes on the rights of others.’


For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at or on 0773 843 5059.

The Daily Mail article about the new GMC guidelines:

The BHA’s previous article on the conscientious objection clause for pharmacists:

You can buy the BHA pamphlet Right to Object? Conscientious Objection and Religious Conviction online in the BHA shop for £4:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.