American Medical Association provides details of new freedom of conscience policy

AMA submission to Ontario College of Physicians an improvement on quality of briefing by College working group

Sean Murphy*

The American Medical Association has made a submission to the public consultation on physician freedom of conscience being conducted by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).  The AMA letter provides important details about a policy on physician freedom of conscience adopted by the AMA House of Delegates in November, 2014, but not due to be formally published until June of this year.

The current consultation on a controversial draft policy, Professional Obligations and Human Rights (POHR), was approved by College Council in December, 2014.  Briefing materials provided to Council members by the College working group at that time included the American Medical Association as one of the organizations selected for international comparison of policies.

However, the single sentence offered by the working group as representative of AMA policy was taken from an on-line source of short essays about medical ethics, not an authoritative source of information about AMA policy. In fact, the article was about conscientious objection among pharmacists, not about the policies of the American Medical Association concerning freedom of conscience in health care.

The letter from the AMA is a substantial improvement upon what the Protection of Conscience Project submission characterizes as the “deficient and superficial” briefing materials concerning the United States supplied to College Council in December.

. . .In the Council’s view, an account of the nature and scope of a physician’s duty to inform or to refer when a patient seeks treatment that is in tension with the physician’s deeply held personal beliefs must address in a nuanced way the question of moral complicity. The Council concurs that physicians must provide information a patient needs to make a well-considered decision about care, including informing the patient about options the physician sincerely believes are morally objectionable. However, the Council sought to clarify that requirement, holding that before initiating a patient-physician relationship the physician should “make clear any specific interventions or services the physician cannot in good conscience provide because they are contrary to the physician’s deeply held personal beliefs, focusing on interventions or services that a patient might otherwise reasonably expect the practice to offer.”

The Council also reached a somewhat different conclusion than the College with respect to a duty to refer.

The College’s draft policy provides that, when a physician is “unwilling to provide certain elements of care on moral or religious grounds,” the physician must provide “an effective referral” to “a nonobjecting, available, and accessible physician or other health care provider.”

This seems to us to overstate a duty to refer, risk making the physician morally complicit in violation of deeply held personal beliefs, and falls short of according appropriate respect to the physician as a moral agent. On our view, a somewhat less stringent formulation of a duty to refer better serves the goals of non-abandonment, continuity of care, and respect for physicians’ moral agency. The council concluded that:

In general, physicians should refer a patient to another physician or institution to provide treatment the physician declines to offer. When a deeply held, well-considered personal belief leads a physician also to decline to refer, the physician should offer impartial guidance to patients about how to inform themselves regarding access to desired services.

On the Council’s analysis, the degree or depth of moral complicity is defined in part by ones “‘moral distance’ from the wrongdoer or the act, including the degree to which one shares the wrongful intent.”

Other factors also influence complicity, including “the severity of the immoral act, whether one was  under duress in participating in the immoral act, the likelihood that one’s conduct will induce others to act immorally, and the extent to which one’s participation is needed to facilitate the wrongdoing.” . . .

Leave a Reply