The country's Catholic bishops have accused the National Maternity Hospital of denying doctors their right to freedom of conscience by requiring applicants for consultant posts to carry out elective abortions if appointed.

They say they regret that last month's advertisements for the jobs stipulated that one of the main pre-conditions for applicants was "a requirement to carry out elective abortions if appointed".

The  competitions - which are now closed - were for separate consultant posts in obstetrics/gynaecology and in anaesthesia. 

In a statement issued following their quarterly meeting in Maynooth, the bishops say the precondition "runs totally counter to a doctor's constitutional and human right to freedom of conscience".

The statement continues: "A doctor who is eminently qualified to work as a consultant in these fields is denied employment in these roles because of his/her conscience. Doctors who are pro-life and who may have spent over a decade training in these areas and who may otherwise be the best candidate for these positions are now advised that, should they apply, they would not be eligible for consideration." 

The bishops say the policy of the Dublin-based hospital "totally undermines the whole concept of freedom of conscience which was guaranteed in the recent legislation". 

"The consequence for the entire training and recruitment of doctors to work in these positions in hospitals in Ireland is greatly undermined by these advertisements," they say. 

In response, a spokesman for the National Maternity Hospital said: "We stated publicly several weeks ago that these particular additional posts are being funded from a specific financial allocation from the HSE to the hospital for the very specific purpose of providing Termination of Pregnancy Services. They are therefore for individuals willing to contribute to the provision of these services. Other past and future posts are not affected. The conscientious objection guidelines for staff in both hospitals remain unchanged."

Council for Life appointment 

At their spring meeting, the bishops appointed Bishop of Elphin Kevin Doran as chairman of their newly established Council for Life.

Father Dermot Meehan, Administrator of the Diocese of Achonry, has also been appointed as a member.

Bishop Doran said the council will give priority to exploring how best, in the current socio-cultural context, the Catholic community can offer practical support to women in crisis pregnancy, giving their unborn babies the best chance at life. 

"It will also give priority to promoting an understanding of life questions among young people and to engaging them in the challenge of defending life," Dr Doran said.