Science, religion, public funding and force feeding in modern medicine

Responding to Bronca, T. “A conflict of conscience: What place do physicians’ religious beliefs have in modern medicine.” Canadian Health Care Network, 26 May, 2015.

Sean Murphy*

Tristan Bronca writes, “Belief without evidence is becoming incompatible with scientific sensibilities.”1

This notion might be exemplified by Dr. James Downar. Advocating for physician assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canadian Family Practice, he described himself as “a secular North American who supports individual autonomy, subject only to limitations that are justifiable on the basis of empirically provable facts.”2

Dr. Downar’s “Yes” was opposed by Dr. Edward St. Godard’s “No.”3 Since both are palliative care specialists, their differences on the acceptability of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are not explained by differences in their clinical experience, but by their different moral or ethical beliefs.

However, neither Dr. Downar’s beliefs nor Dr. St. Godard’s can be justified “on the basis of empirically provable facts.” Nor can Dr. Downar’s support for individual autonomy, since empirical evidence demonstrates the primacy of human dependence and interdependence – not autonomy. Empirical evidence can provide raw material needed for adequate answers to moral or ethical questions, but it cannot answer them. As Dr. McCabe told Tristan Bronca, science is necessary – but not sufficient. Moral decision-making requires more than facts.

And the practice of medicine is an inescapably moral enterprise. Every time they provide a treatment, physicians implicitly concede its goodness; they would not otherwise offer it. This is usually unnoticed because physicians habitually conform to standards of medical practice without adverting to the beliefs underpinning them. Hence, the demand that physicians must not be allowed to act upon beliefs is unacceptable because it is impossible; one cannot act morally without reference to beliefs.

But Tristan Bronca asks specifically about whether or not religious beliefs belong in medical practice in a secular society. On this point, the Supreme Court of Canada is unanimous: “Yes.”

“Everyone has ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious,” Mr. Justice Gonthier wrote in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36. “To construe the ‘secular’ as the realm of the ‘unbelief’ is therefore erroneous.”

“Why,” he asked, “should the religiously informed conscience be placed at a public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in an illiberal fashion and would provide only a feeble notion of pluralism.”4

Thus, to argue that a “secular” society excludes religious belief perpetuates an error that contributes significantly to climate of anti-religious intolerance.

Guantanamo Restrain Chair Wikipedia Commons

Public funding of services is beneficial for patients, but quite distinct from physician obligations. After all, physicians provide many kinds of elective surgery and health services that are not publicly funded, and physicians are not paid for publicly funded services that they do not provide. Besides, our secular society taxes both religious and non-religious believers, so both have equal claims on “public dollars.”

Most important, public funding does not prove that a procedure is morally or ethically acceptable, any more than public funding proves that force-feeding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is acceptable. Perhaps that point will come up in military proceedings against a navy nurse who refused orders to do so.5

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The Canadian Healthcare Network posted this response in the on-line edition, which is accessible only to health care professionals and managers.


1.  Bronca, T. “A conflict of conscience: What place do physicians’ religious beliefs have in modern medicine.” Canadian Health Care Network, 26 May, 2015 (Accessed 2018-03-07).

2. Downar J. “Is physician-assisted death in anyone’s best interest? – Yes.” Canadian Family Physician, Vol. 61: April, 2015, p. 314-316 (Accessed 2018-03-07).

3. St. Godard E. “Is physician-assisted death in anyone’s best interest? – No.” Canadian Family Physician, Vol. 61: April, 2015, p. 316-318 (Accessed 2018-03-07).

4. Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 [2002] 4 S.C.R. 710 (SCC), para. 137 (Accessed 2014-08-03). “Madam Justice McLachlin, who wrote the decision of the majority, accepted the reasoning of Mr. Justice Gonthier on this point thus making his the reasoning of all nine judges in relation to the interpretation of ‘secular.’” Benson I.T., “Seeing Through the Secular Illusion” (July 29, 2013). NGTT Deel 54 Supplementum 4, 2013  (Accessed 2018-03-07).

5. Rosenberg C. “Top nursing group backs Navy nurse who wouldn’t force-feed at Guantánamo.” Miami Herald, 19 November, 2014 (Accessed 2018-03-07)


In Defense of Religious Bioethics

American Journal of Bioethics, December, Vol. 12, No. 12, 2012

Judah Goldberg, Alan Jotkowitz

In the first year of a celebrated graduate program in bioethics, one of us wrote a short essay about physician-assisted suicide that claimed that murder is not only a breach of rights, but also a “grave affront to all human existence as well as to He who grants life.”  Well, that last part earned me a predictable scribble on the margins of my returned paper, something to the effect of, “What if someone does not believe in a Giver of life?”
Full Text

Seventh Day Adventist president stresses importance of freedom of conscience

Seventh-day Adventist world church President Ted N. C. Wilson, speaking at the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom in the Dominican Republic, distinguished between “radical” or anti-religious secularism—that would exclude religion from public life—and “secular governance,” which accommodates religious belief, protects the religious freedom rights of minorities but does not favour a particular religious tradition. Radical secularism, he said, must be opposed.  At the same time, religious believers must not attempt to establish a “religious state” as an alternative to secular regimes. [Adventist News Network]