The Corner

Science & Tech

‘Medical Conscience’ Is Becoming a Partisan Controversy

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Should doctors and nurses be forced to participate in interventions they find morally abhorrent or unwarranted? As one example, should ethical rules require pediatricians to medically inhibit normal puberty as demanded by parents to “treat” their child’s gender dysphoria — even if they are morally opposed to the concept and/or the supposed treatment?

Some say yes. Thus, influential bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel argues that medical professionals are obligated to accede to the patient’s right to receive legal interventions if they are generally accepted within the medical community — specifically including abortion. Emanuel stated doctors who are morally or religiously opposed, should do the procedure anyway or procure a doctor they know will accede to the patient’s demands. Either that, or get out of medicine.

Supporters of “medical conscience” argue that forcing doctors to participate in interventions they find morally abhorrent would be involuntary medical servitude. They want to strengthen existing laws that protect doctors, nurses, and pharmacists’ who refuse participation in legal interventions to which they are morally or religiously opposed.

Now, medical conscience looks to become another battlefront in our bitter partisan divide. After the Trump administration announced rules that will place greater emphasis on enforcing federal laws protecting medical conscience, Democratic state attorneys general promised to seek a court order invalidating the new rule. From the New York Law Journal story:

But 19 state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman, argue that it is the patients who will be discriminated against under the proposed rule. This is particularly true, they argue, in the cases of marginalized patients who already face discrimination in trying to obtain health care, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients and male patients seeking HIV/AIDS preventative medications, according to the comments filed in opposition to the rule.

“If adopted, the proposed rule … will needlessly and carelessly upset the balance that has long been struck in federal and state law to protect the religious freedom of providers, the business needs of employers, and the health care needs of patients,” they state.

The stakes can only increase as moral controversies in health care intensify in coming years. As just two examples, some bioethicists are lobbying to enact laws that would give dementia patients the right to sign an advance directive requiring nursing homes to starve them to death once they reach a specified level of cognitive decline. There are also increasing calls to do away with the dead-donor rule in transplant medicine so that PVS patients can be organ-harvested while still alive

If these acts become legal, should doctor and nurses who practice in these fields be forced to participate? If Emanuel’s opinion prevails, the answer could be yes. If medical professionals are protected by medical conscience legal protections, the answer would be no.

Medical conscience is not just important to personally affected professionals. All of us have a stake. Think about the potential talent drain we could face if we force health-care professionals to violate their moral beliefs. Experienced doctors and nurses might well take Emanuel’s advice and get out of medicine — while talented young people who could add so much to the field may avoid entering health-care professions altogether.

Comity is essential to societal cohesion in our moral polyglot age. Medical conscience allows patients to obtain morally contentious procedures, while permitting dissenting medical professionals to stay true to their own moral and religious beliefs. I hope the Democrats’ lawsuits are thrown out of court.

Wesley J. Smith — Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.

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