December 1, 2022

Should lockdown protesters forfeit their right to medical care?

Some bioethicists have little sympathy for them

Protests in US state capitals against coronavirus lockdowns have become a familiar feature of nightly news bulletins. In late April, about 1,500 people attended a rally in Madison, Wisconsin – and later about 70 tested positive for the virus.

It’s not certain that the 70 were protesters, but incidents like this have angered some bioethicists. Writing in PennLive, a Pennsylvania blog, Art Caplan, Dominic Sisti, Moti Gorin, and Emily Largent argue that protesters are freeloaders on the sacrifices made by people who observe lockdown restrictions.

“Individuals who get COVID-19 while protesting the very public health measures necessary to stop its spread should not get a ventilator before those who have been playing by the rules,” they contend.

The protesters often look like roughnecks from flyover country, who are waving American flags and brandishing placards. The bioethicists have little sympathy for their complaints: “Patrick Henry’s famous proclamation, carried by many protestors, is ‘give me liberty or give me death’ not ‘give me liberty and if that doesn’t work out so well give me a scarce ventilator.’”

This outburst provoked an equally passionate response on the blog of The Hastings Center by two ethicists, Isabel C. Legarda and Samara Peters, who said that Caplan and his colleagues were ignoring basic human rights and the Hippocratic Oath.

Our professional and moral duty as physicians cannot be predicated upon our perceptions of the moral opinions and actions of our patients. Such weaponization of health care in the name of outrage goes against every obligation of ethics and professionalism we pledge to uphold as clinicians. It is, frankly, extortion, a form of violence in the service of our own affective discomfort and not of those we have taken an oath to serve.

As they point out, this ethical conundrum is not unique. Doctors are expected to treat alcoholics who have damaged their livers or terrorists who have injured by their own bombs. They agree that the protesters are irresponsible and putting lives at risk. But “political alignment, religion, or other beliefs should never tarnish the standards we hold for our own actions.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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