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05/02/2018

The Ethics of the President’s Physician

We all may remember that Donald Trump’s personal physician, Dr. Harold Borenstein, released a glowing hyperbolic endorsement of then candidate Donald Trump’s health. He stated that “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” He further stated that “His physical strength and stamina are extraordinary,” The apparent problem with this letter, as Dr. Borenstein now states, is that he did not actually compose the letter. In an article published recently on the CNN website Dr. Borenstein indicates that he did not write that letter, that it was, in fact, dictated by Donald Trump. Let me make it clear that I am not writing about Donald Trump’s ethics and honesty. This has been the subject of thousands of commentaries which can be found almost anywhere. My intention is to address Dr. Borenstein’s ethics and honesty. Because Dr. Borenstein is a physician and was acting in his capacity as a physician in writing and releasing that letter it is fully appropriate to evaluate the moral underpinning of that action by the standards of medical ethics. These principles constitute the basis of moral conduct by all physicians and medical care providers.

While statements of core medical ethical principle vary it is commonly accepted that the principles include respect for persons, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. The first, respect for persons, focuses on the manner in which the medical practitioner acts towards the patient. However, this statement was a communication to the general public and needs to be respectful towards them. Dr. Borenstein’s statement is only respectful if it is true and verifiable otherwise it is misleading. There is no way Dr. Borenstein can know that Trump is “unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Thus, he is being dishonest and possibly provides misinformation with which citizens will determine who to vote for as President.

Beneficence essentially means doing good.  It is unclear to me that a hyperbolic statement such as this could be viewed as beneficent. How can it be beneficent to mislead? Analogously non-maleficence means do no harm. If this statement is untrue and leads to people making choices about their vote based upon untrue information it does in fact do harm. Finally, it cannot possibly be just to assist in misleading people in making important decisions. It is unjust to the voters and unjust to the other candidate.

Thus, I feel quite confident that it is apparent that in providing a physician’s imprimatur to a hyperbolic statement that was in fact written Donald Trump himself and allowing that statement to influence individual’s decisions on an important matter was a failure to act as an ethical physician. These are the standards that Dr. Borenstein is accountable to uphold. He did not.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and a Graduate Certificate in Clinical Ethics. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.


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