When can a doctor conscientiously object?

America

Bernard G. Prusak

Over the last decade, the culture wars in the United States have broken new ground: They have become battles over the rights of conscience. For example, now that same-sex marriage is a right, the question before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop is whether its sympathetic, telegenic owner, Jack Phillips, is within his rights to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Similarly, under the Obama administration, the court heard arguments more than once over whether employers who object on religious grounds to contraceptives or abortion should be exempted from having to provide employees health insurance that includes such services.

By contrast, debates over conscientious objection in medicine have not had the same notoriety, though they have broken out repeatedly among health care professionals and medical ethicists since the turn of the century, when there was a flare-up over pharmacists’ refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives. . . [Full text]

Hawaii legalizes assisted suicide: Refusing to refer for suicide may incur legal liability

Sean Murphy*

Assisted suicide will become legal in Hawaii on 1 January, 2019, as a result of the passage of the Our Care, Our Choice Act. Introduced in the state House of Representatives only in January, it passed both the House and Senate and was approved by Governor David Ige on 5 April. Beginning next year, physicians will be able to write prescriptions for lethal medications for Hawaiian residents who are capable of informed consent, who are at least 18 years old, and who have been diagnosed with a terminal, incurable disease expected to result in death within six months.1

And beginning next year, Hawaiian physicians who refuse to facilitate assisted suicide by referring patients to a willing colleague may face discipline — including expulsion from the medical profession — or other legal liabilities. Hawaii could become one of only two jurisdictions in the world where willingness to refer patients for suicide is a condition for practising medicine.2 . . . [Full text]

Declaration in Support of Conscientious Objection in Health Care

Introduction

The Declaration and associated texts you find here are my attempt, as a concerned academic, to provide a platform for the public support of freedom of conscience in health care.

Please read all of the material here. If you agree with the Declaration overall – even if you disagree with or are neutral on various details – I encourage you to add your electronic signature as a demonstration of support.

Signatures from health care professionals and academics in related fields are especially welcome, but you are encouraged to sign simply if you share my concerns and agree with the general way I have expressed them. You do not need an institutional affiliation, professional title, or any particular background. The more signatures this Declaration obtains, the more likely it is to come to the attention of policy makers and people who can amplify the message.

The texts ancillary to the Declaration are not part of its contents; they simply explain how I see and interpret the issues raised in the Declaration, and how I would like to see policy develop. By signing the Declaration, you do not indicate support for anything I say in the ancillary texts.

You will be asked only for your name, professional title (if you have one), institutional affiliation (if you have one), email address, and the country in which you reside. I may use your email occasionally to send you information about the Declaration, such as media coverage, but I will not use your email address for any other purpose. You will not be asked be involved in any other activity. The information you provide will be used solely to represent support for freedom of conscience in health care to professionals in the field (both clinical and academic), policy makers, and other interested parties who might be able to help with the promotion of this issue.

Acknowledgement and Disclaimer
I am grateful to the University of Reading for its support in hosting this material. The views and proposals presented here, however, represent my opinions alone. They do not, in any way, necessarily represent the views of the University of Reading or any of its officers, employees, or students.
David S. Oderberg

Sign the Declaration in Support of Conscientious Objection in Health Care

Show your support by signing the declaration.

Quebec euthanasia statistics: 67% increase in euthanasia deaths in second year

Introduction

Since 10 December, 2015, euthanasia has been provided by physicians in Quebec under the terms of An Act Respecting End of Life Care (ARELC).  Health and social services agencies established by the government throughout the province are state agencies responsible for the delivery and coordination of health care in the province administrative regions. These are called Centres intégrés de santé et de services sociaux (CISSS) and Centres intégrés universitaires de santé et de services sociaux [CIUSSS).  Some administrative regions (like Montreal and the Quebec City region) have more than one CISSS or CIUSSS.

These agencies are responsible for the delivery of euthanasia.  For two years beginning 10 December, 2015, they were required to make reports twice yearly to a commission established by the law to monitor the administration of euthanasia (the Commission sur les soins de fin de vie) and publish them on their websites.  These twice-yearly reports will apparently cease to be published after that time.  The Commission draws from these and other reports to make its required summary of activity to the legislature (National Assembly).

The Project has compiled the statistics provided in these reports from10 December, 2015 to 10 December, 2017.  The compilation includes tables and charts, some of which are reproduced below.

Euthanasia Requests in Quebec, 2016-2017

Euthanasia Requests in Quebec, 2016-2017

Note that, in some cases, the number of patients lethally infused is higher than the number of requests because euthanasia was provided in response to a request made in the previous reporting period.  In addition, not all euthanasia deaths are captured in these reports, as some regions with low populations do not publish reports, and euthanasia may be provided by private entities that are not subject to the statutory twice-yearly reporting requirement.

  • The number of euthanasia requests made weekly in the province increased from about 14 in 2016 to 45 in 2017. In Montérégie the number of requests weekly doubled; they more than tripled in Bas-Saint-Laurent.
  • Euthanasia was provided about 9 times weekly in the province during 2016 and 29 times weekly in 2017.
  • The number of euthanasia deaths increased by about 67% from 454 in 2016 to 757 in 2017.  This is about 1.2% of deaths from all causes, a rate not reached by Belgium for 9 to 10 years after legalization.
    • In Outaouais the number of euthanasia deaths almost doubled (11 to 21)
    • In Chaudière-Appalaches the number more than doubled (18 to 40)
    • The number of euthanaia deaths more than tripled in Saguenay-Lac-Staint-Jean (6 to 19)
    • The number of euthanasia deaths quadrupled in Côte-Nord (2 to 8), and more than quadrupled in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (4 to 18).
  • 434 requests for euthanasia were not acted upon in 2017, up from 263 in 2016.  However, the percentage of all requests not acted upon remained constant at 37%.
    • In 11% of the cases the patient died of natural causes before euthanasia was provided, up from 9% in 2016.
    • About 8% of the patients did not qualify for the procedure, down from 11% in 2016.
  • Marked increases in rates of continuous palliative sedation occurred in a couple of regions, notably Laurentides (a 2017 reate almost six times that of 2016) 

See: full statistical summary with downloadable Excel file

You’re a surgeon. A patient wants to look like a lizard. What do you do?

As medical treatments advance, the need to accommodate conscientious objection in healthcare is more pressing

The Guardian
Reproduced with permission

David S. Oderberg*

Imagine that you are a cosmetic surgeon and a patient asks you to make them look like a lizard. Would you have ethical qualms? Or perhaps you are a neurosurgeon approached by someone wanting a brain implant – not to cure a disability but to make them smarter via cognitive enhancement. Would this go against your code of professional ethics? With the rapid advance of medical technology, problems of conscience threaten to become commonplace. Perhaps explicit legal protection for conscientious objection in healthcare is the solution.

There is limited statutory protection for those performing abortion, and there is some shelter for IVF practitioners. Passive euthanasia (withdrawal of life support with intent to hasten death) is also part of the debate over doctors’ conscience rights. That’s about it as far as UK law is concerned – though freedom of conscience is enshrined in numerous conventions and treaties to which we are party. Abortion, artificial reproductive technologies (involving embryo research and storage) and passive euthanasia are the flashpoints of current and historic controversy in medical ethics. The debate over freedom of conscience in healthcare goes to the heart of what it means to be a medical practitioner.

Curing, healing, not harming: these are the guiding principles of the medical and nursing professions. But what if there is reasonable and persistent disagreement over whether a treatment is in the patient’s best interests? What if a practitioner believes that treating their patient in a particular way is not good for them? What if carrying out the treatment would be a violation of the healthcare worker’s ethical and/or religious beliefs? Should they be coerced into acting contrary to their conscience?

Such coercion, whether it involve threats of dismissal, denial of job opportunities or of promotion, or shaming for not being a team player, is a real issue. Yet in what is supposed to be a liberal, pluralistic and tolerant society, compelling people to violate their deeply held ethical beliefs – making them do what they think is wrong – should strike one as objectionable.

Freedom of conscience is not only about performing an act but about assisting with it. There are some people who ask doctors to amputate healthy limbs. If you were a surgeon, my guess is that you would refuse. But what about being asked to help out? Would you hand over the instruments to a willing surgeon? Or supervise a trainee surgeon to make sure they did the amputation correctly? If conscientious objection is to have any substance in law, it must also cover these acts of assistance.

This country has a long and honourable tradition of accommodating conscientious objectors in wartime – those who decline to fight or to assist or facilitate the fighting by, say, making munitions. They can be assigned to other duties that may support the war effort yet are so remote a form of cooperation as not to trouble their consciences. In any war, the objectors are a tiny fraction of the combat-eligible population. Yet when it comes to one’s rights, do numbers matter? Has their existence ever prevented a war from being carried out to the utmost? I fail to see, then, why we are tolerant enough to make adjustments for conscientious objectors in the midst of a national emergency, yet in peacetime would be reluctant to afford similar adjustments to members of one of the most esteemed professions.

Do we think medical practitioners should be no more than state functionaries, dispensing whatever is legal no matter how much it is in conflict with personal conscience and professional integrity – lest they be hounded out of the profession? Some academics think expulsion is not good enough. Or should healthcare workers be valets, providing whatever service their patients demand? Perhaps when practitioners find themselves faced with demands for the sorts of treatment I’ve mentioned – or perhaps gene editing treatments or compulsory sterilisation, society will act. Or maybe by then it will be too little, too late.

David S Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, and author of Declaration in support of conscientious protection in medicine

 

 

‘Medical Conscience’ Is Becoming a Partisan Controversy

National Review
Reproduced with permission

Wesley J. Smith

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.

Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS

Lisa H. Harris

In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced the creation of its Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, explaining that it will allow HHS’s Office of Civil Rights to “more vigorously and effectively enforce existing laws protecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom” and will ensure that “no one is coerced into participating in activities that would violate their consciences, such as abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide.”1 Responses were as expected: religious conservatives hailed the new division as a needed intervention; public health and clinical leaders and advocates decried it, worrying about its impact on access to care and harm to patients. . .


Harris LH.  Divisions, New and Old — Conscience and Religious Freedom at HHS.  N Engl J Med 2018; 378:1369-1371. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1801154