An article recently published in a prestigious medical journal argues that conscientious objection should be eliminated from the practice of medicine. The argument is unsound, its conclusion dangerous and inhumane.
In a recent “Sounding Board” article for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, Drs. Ronit Y. Stahl and Ezekiel J. Emanuel call for the elimination of medical providers’ conscience objection rights. Their suggestions, if reflected in legislation and medical licensure requirements, would lead to blatant discrimination against medical providers who hold sincere moral objections to certain medical interventions and would expose patients to significant risk of harm.
The authors contend that because medical providers freely choose their professions, they are “obligated to provide, perform, and refer patients for interventions according to the standards of the profession.” To support their claim, they appeal to differences between military and medical conscientious objection, to internal inconsistencies within the codes of ethics of various professional medical associations, and to the role of “professional role morality” in determining providers’ responsibilities to patients. The authors’ arguments, we will show, are uniformly weak.
In his prophetic work The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote that through society’s embrace of moral relativism, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Drs. Stahl and Emanuel want physicians without chests, physicians who are mere functionaries, carrying out whatever their professional associations suggest regardless of what their consciences say. The proposal is dangerous and inhumane. True consideration for patient well-being demands that providers make use of a fully integrated conscience.
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