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06/02/2017

In Defense of a Physician’s Right of Conscientious Objection

Guest post by Cheyn Onarecker, MD

In their recent “Sounding Board” piece in the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required), Ronit Stahl, PhD, and Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, denounce the rights of physicians and other health care professionals to opt out of certain procedures because of a moral or religious belief. The interests and rights of the patient, they state, should always trump those of the clinician. The only role for conscientious objection, in their view, is a limited one, when the appropriateness of a treatment or procedure is being debated.

Once a professional society determines that a treatment is acceptable, the physician must comply or get out of medicine altogether. Stahl and Ezekiel lament that the American Medical Association (AMA) and other medical societies support conscience rights, but, I believe the arguments they advance to eliminate such rights are not convincing and would jeopardize the future of medicine.

First, although the well-being of patients is one of the primary goals of medicine, there has always been a balance between the needs of patients and physicians. Otherwise, physicians would work 24 hours a day, with no time off for family, friends, or other pursuits. Physicians would be expected to respond to all patient requests, day or night. The question is not whether physicians should put patients’ needs above their own, but where the line should be drawn between the needs of the patient and the physician. In emergencies, a patient’s needs triumph, but other situations are not always so clear. When it comes to requests for treatments that violate a physician’s deepest moral convictions, no physician should be forced to cross over the line.

Second, the decisions by medical societies regarding the appropriateness of certain treatments and procedures do not occur in the idealized manner described by the authors. Anyone who has sat in a hospital department meeting knows how decisions are often made. The person, or persons, with the loudest voices and the most influence can carry the day. I have experienced the wholesale politicking that occurs at national society meetings, where resolutions that have been defeated for years are suddenly adopted as organizational policy because, finally, enough delegates were cajoled into a “yes” vote. And to say, as Stahl and Emanuel do, that medical debates are not affected by cultural and political factors is to ignore history. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) did not become a legal medical practice in Oregon because the AMA determined that it should be so. In fact, the AMA, the largest physician organization in the country, opposed the practice. No, PAS became legal, because the state legislature passed a law. Likewise, abortion became legal due to the decisions of nine judges.

Given that professional societies can be influenced by shifting social and political trends, we should accommodate the right of a physician to rely on her conscience to decide on controversial practices. For example, the fact that abortion-on-demand is legal does not erase the truth that half of the population and a large percentage of physicians do not support the practice. Physicians who object to elective abortions are considering the well-being of the baby as well as the mother. A 51 percent vote by the members of their professional society will not change their conviction that an abortion would take the life of an innocent human being without just cause. Female genital mutilation (circumcision) is accepted in some parts of the world. If such a practice were to become legal and accepted by some professional society in this country, would those who object to the procedure remain silent and comply? In the milieu of the diversity of moral perspectives in our culture, a physician must sometimes rely on her conscience as a guide to ethical medical practice. I have several more thoughts on this topic that I will continue tomorrow in my next post.

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