December 8, 2023

Conscience wars intensify in the US

A new article on conscientious objection in the New England Journal of Medicine has sparked outcry among conservative bioethicists.

An article on conscientious objection in the New England Journal of Medicine has sparked outcry among conservative bioethicists. University of Pennsylvania bioethicists Ronit Y. Stahl and Ezekiel J. Emanuel argue that medical societies should “declare conscientious objection unethical” and remove conscience clauses from their codes of ethics.   

According to the authors, “objection to providing patients interventions…that the profession deems to be effective, ethical, and standard treatments…is unjustifiable”. Stahl and Emanuel argue that doctors, in entering the medical profession, agree to abide by the ethical and professional standards of the profession: “By entering a health care profession, the person assumes a professional obligation to place the well-being and rights of patients at the center of professional practice.” Regardless of their personal religious objections, they “must provide the appropriate interventions as specified by the medical profession”.

Doctors who object to standard practice should choose between the following two options, the authors suggest: “select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession.”

Bioethicist Wesley Smith slammed the article, suggesting that opponents of conscientious objection want to “weaponize medicine to impose secular individualistic and utilitarian values on all of society.” As Smith emphasises, Emanuel is a highly respected figure in American bioethics, and has been described as the “chief architect of Obamacare”. Smith suggested that the article is indicative of a concerted campaign to “cleanse health care of all those who would dare to practice medicine in accord with sanctity-of-life moral viewpoints.”

The argument advanced by Stahl and Emanuel is remarkably similar to the overarching thesis of a recent special edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics on conscientious objection.

Conscience wars intensify in the US
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
conscientious objection
ezekiel emanuel