Some of you may have already seen this transcript from the September ’08 President’s Bioethics Council meeting. Three physicians gave testimony on September 12th, including Dr. Farr Curlin, Dr. Howard Brody, and (from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, although she says she’s not there as an ACOG representative) Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly.
Council member Robert P. George has this to say about the debate (speaking specifically on conscience and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Ethics Statement on conscience and physicians, “The Limits of Conscientious Refusal in Reproductive Medicine,” )
The first thing to notice about the ACOG Committee report is that it is an exercise in moral philosophy. It proposes a definition of conscience, something that cannot be supplied by science or medicine. It then proposes to instruct its readers on, “…the limits of conscientious refusals describing how claims of conscience should be weighed in the context of other values critical to the ethical provision of health care.”
Again, knowledge of these limits and values, as well as knowledge of what should count as the ethical provision of health care, are not and cannot possibly be the product of scientific inquiry for medicine as such. The proposed instruction offered here by those responsible for the ACOG Committee report represents a philosophical and ethical opinion — their philosophical and ethical opinion.
The report goes on to, “outline options for public policy,” and propose, “recommendations that maximize accommodation of the individual’s religious and moral beliefs while avoiding imposition of these beliefs on others or interfering with the safe, timely, and financially feasible access to reproductive health care that all women deserve.”
Yet again notice that every concept in play here — the punitive balancing, the judgment as to what constitutes an imposition of personal beliefs on others, the view of what constitutes health care or reproductive health care, the judgment about what is deserved is philosophical, not scientific or, strictly speaking, medical.
To the extent that they are medical judgments even loosely speaking they reflect a concept of medicine informed and structured, shaped by philosophical and ethical judgments. Those responsible for the report purport to be speaking as physicians and medical professionals.
The special authority the report is supposed to have derives from their standing and expertise as physicians and medical professionals, yet at every point that matters, the judgments offered reflect their philosophical, ethical, and political judgments, not any expertise they have by virtue of their training and experience in science and medicine.
At every key point in the report their judgments are contestable and contested. Indeed they are contested by the very people on who consciences they seek to impose, the people whom they would, if their report were adopted and made binding, force into line with their philosophical and ethical judgments or drive out of their fields of medical practice. And they are contested, of course, by many others. And in each of these contests a resolution one way or the other cannot be determined by scientific methods, rather the debate is philosophical, ethical, or political.
Lay aside for the moment the question of whose philosophical judgments are right and whose are wrong. My point so far has only been that the report is laced and dependent upon at every turn philosophical judgments. I’ve not offered a critique of those judgments, although anyone who cares to can find plenty of criticisms in my work of those judgments. But lay that aside for now.
The key thing to see is that the issues in dispute are philosophical and can only be resolved by philosophical reflection and debate. They cannot be resolved by science or methods of scientific inquiry. The committee report reflects and promotes a particular moral view and vision and understandings of health and medicine shaped in every contested dimension and in every dimension relevant to the report’s subject matter, namely the limits of conscientious refusal, by that moral view and vision.
The report, in other words, in its driving assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions is not morally neutral. Its analysis and recommendations for action do not proceed from a basis of moral neutrality. It represents a partisan position among the family of possible positions debated or adopted by people of reason and goodwill in the medical profession and beyond. Indeed, for me, the partisanship of the report is its most striking feature.
Its greatest irony is the report’s concern for physicians’ allegedly imposing their beliefs on patients by, for example, declining to perform or refer for abortions — or at least declining to perform abortions or provide other services in emergency situations and certainly to refer for these procedures. The assumption here, of course, is the philosophical one that deliberate feticide is morally acceptable and even a woman’s right.
But lay that aside for now. Of course, the physician or the pharmacist who declines to dispense coerces no one, though I think that Prof. Brody and I would have a debate about that.
Interesting that both Dr. Lyerly and Dr. Brody refuse to discuss the ACOG statement.
A compelling look at the problem of contrasting world views is posed by Dr. Gilbert Meilander:
. . . the fascinating question you raised under your slide on professional integrity about a professional elevating the — in this case the patient’s needs above his own interests, and then you said does one’s own interest include one’s personal integrity. But then you confused — and I think that’s — it’s like, you know, “Should I be prepared to go to hell in order to help somebody,” a question which theologians have actually discussed.
But you gave the, to me, puzzling example of physicians who should be willing to risk their own lives in an epidemic, for instance, to do it, and then you said, you know, if you’d risk your life, why wouldn’t you risk your integrity.
But I thought the reason for a physician being willing to risk his life in an epidemic was precisely that he didn’t think staying alive was the most important thing, that there was something else that was morally more compelling and obligatory even than preserving his existence. And that would have something to do with the personal integrity that you seem willing to think may be — one should be willing to set aside in embracing what one thinks is evil.
How can anyone live well without integrity? Or, from the Christian philosopher, Paul, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”
(Edited to add italics on that long quote.)