THE two leading cancer specialists at the Mater Hospital in Dublin last night dramatically intervened in the row over a decision to delay vital trials of a new cancer drug.
In an open letter sent to the Irish Independent, Mater oncologists Dr John McCaffrey and Prof Desmond Carney said the Catholic Church had no right to interfere in the doctor-patient relationship.
The Mater, which is Catholic run, objects to wording in the accompanying patient information leaflet which mentions various forms of artificial contraception.
It wants this changed in line with its Catholic ethos which is opposed to artificial forms of birth control such as the pill.
It is understood that in the past, information leaflets made available at the Mater in these circumstances would have advised the woman to avoid becoming pregnant, but would not outline how she might do so.
It would have been left to the doctor to do that.
In the open letter, Dr A McCaffrey and Prof Carney state:
"With more than 40 years combined experience in managing cancer, in Ireland and abroad, we strongly believe that no-one should become pregnant while on chemotherapy.
"We have always counselled our patients to avoid pregnancy."
They continue: "This discussion - with patients and their partners - is a private matter between doctor and patient, and may involve a discussion of different methods of birth control, including abstinence.
"We believe that no Church (except that desired by the patient) or Administrator has any role in this exchange and we continue to believe and practice this.
"This is all the more relevant in our increasingly multi-cultural society."
They say that not to give advice concerning pregnancy could result either in foetal abnormality, or the woman having to forgo cancer treatment in order that the child be born alive, but could leave the child motherless. They state: "Physical risk to the health and viability of the foetus, or treatment refusal by a pregnant woman who might die from cancer leaving a motherless child, are two potential albeit extreme results from not appropriately counselling patients before chemotherapy."
They confirm that they already routinely make available to patients the sort of information contained in the drug advisory leaflet.
The doctors add: "We are making this statement now because we feel mature reflection and common sense will allow us collectively to refocus on the most important elements in this issue - our patients and the eradication of this indiscriminate disease."
Dr McCaffery is President of the Irish Society of Medical Oncology. Prof Carney is former President of the Society.
Earlier this week it emerged that the Mater had delayed the drug trial.
Explaining the decision, Fr Kevin Doran, who represents Archbishop Dr Diarmuid Martin on the hospital board, said there was an objection to women being mandated to use artificial contraception if they wished to use the drug.
However, Roche Pharmaceuticals, the company behind the drug, later indicated that there was no such requirement and women could abstain from sex if that was their preferred way not to become pregnant.
Fr Doran is part of a three-member sub-group at the hospital charged with drawing up revised wording for the leaflet which they believe will be in line with the Mater's ethos.
This wording is to be presented to the board on October 18.