British doctors and nurses who refuse to dispense the morning-after pill on grounds of conscience will be unable to receive a specialist diploma in sexual health care.
Guidance issued by the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare states that medical professionals who, for religious reasons, refuse to hand out "emergency" contraception cannot receive the qualification.
The diploma is considered to represent the "gold standard" of sexual health care training, a source at the faculty told Catholic News Service in a telephone conversation Wednesday.
The National Health Service will require the qualification before it pays for services, the source said, meaning that doctors and nurses who do not have the diploma are unlikely to receive specialist work in the field of sexual health care.
The guidance from the faculty states that "completing the syllabus (theory and practical) 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."
It says: "Failure to complete the syllabus renders candidates ineligible for the award of a FSRH diploma."
The Catholic church opposes all contraception, endorsing only those methods of fertility regulation that rely on identifying the times in a woman's menstrual cycle when it is not biologically possible to conceive.
The morning-after pill and some forms of oral contraception are additionally controversial because they sometimes also operate by preventing a fertilized ovum from implanting in its mother's womb, which critics argue is early abortion rather than the prevention of conception from taking place.
The guidance by the faculty, an offshoot of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, was updated earlier this year to apply to nurses as well as doctors. But it drew immediate criticism from Christian medical professionals and bioethicists when it was reported in Monday's Daily Telegraph.
Dr. Peter Saunders, chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, a U.K.-based group representing about 4,500 doctors, said that the guidance could drive thousands of doctors out of gynecology.
The guidance meant that "if you refuse to fit coils or prescribe the morning-after pill, then you can't train to treat infertility, cervical cancer or HIV either," he wrote on his blog Monday. "This effectively means that many thousands of doctors will not be able to pursue a career in gynecology and sexual health."
He said the effect of the ban "will be to drive those with a moral objection to interventions which kill early human embryos ... not just out of family planning" but out of many other areas of medical care as well.
"This is an extraordinary case of taking a sledgehammer to a walnut," Saunders said.
A statement Wednesday from the faculty said all required qualifications "comply with legal and policy frameworks, including the 'Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England,' which specifies that all adults should 'understand the range of choices of contraception and where to access them."