Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, is under growing pressure to impose rules on a hospital in north London, banning doctors from offering contraception or referring patients for abortions.
The cardinal is facing calls from a lobby group to use his position as "arbiter of ethics" at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, a private Catholic hospital in St John's Wood, to insist on the implementation of a code of ethics which forbids any medical practices banned by the Vatican. These include IVF for infertile couples and amniocentesis tests to detect Down's syndrome in unborn children.
Campaigners said yesterday that they intend to ask the Pope to intervene directly in the dispute if Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor does not take the action they want, which includes preventing an NHS-funded general practice due to open at the hospital in November from offering family planning services, including referrals for abortions and prescribing contraceptives.
Nicolas Bellord, secretary of the Restituta Group, which is campaigning to preserve the hospital's Catholic identity, said: "We have not seen effective legal action from the cardinal on this issue. As the matter stands, the hospital is committed to a GP practice on the premises which will have a contractual agreement with the NHS to provide family planning services.
"We are looking to the cardinal to uphold the constitution of the hospital and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. If that does not happen then we will have no alternative but to seek to refer the matter to the Vatican and his Holiness the Pope."
The hospital has built a reputation as the maternity unit of choice for celebrity mothers. Among those who have given birth there are Cate Blanchett, Emma Thompson, Kate Moss and the BBC Radio 1 presenter Sara Cox.
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor demanded that the hospital revise its existing code of ethics two years ago after it was alleged that some staff were flouting its rules by referring patients for abortions and giving prescriptions for the contraceptive pill.
In a letter to the hospital's chairman, Lord Bridgeman, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor wrote: "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."
Attempts to revise the hospital's code of ethics led to a rebellion among staff, who refused to accept the stipulation that they could not refer patients seeking an abortion or contraception, including the morning-after pill, to another hospital or give advice on such issues. The hospital's medical advisory committee, consisting of its most senior clinicians, wrote to the board in May telling them it expected Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor to resign his post as a patron and stating the hospital should be a "non-Catholic hospital with a Catholic heritage" .
It is understood that a new version of the code of ethics was referred back to the hospital board at the beginning of this month and is due for formal approval in the coming weeks. The key contention for medical staff is that they should be allowed to operate to the guidelines of the General Medical Council, the medical profession's governing body, which require all clinicians to offer objective medical advice and referrals regardless of their personal or religious beliefs.
The hospital said yesterday that the revised code had been referred both to the GMC and the Nursing and Midwifery Council for approval. The Independent understands that the new version of the code recognises the requirement for medical staff to abide by the GMC guidelines. A source said: "Without that the hospital risks the withdrawal of its permission to practice."
A spokesman for the archbishop said: "The cardinal is actively engaged in finding a solution to these important issues. He sincerely hopes the board will make the right decision."