July 4, 2022

May doctors refuse to do physical examinations?

Conscientious objection is a familiar issue in cases of abortion or contraception. What about conscientious objection to physical examinations of the opposite sex? This is the difficulty examined in a thought-provoking article in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Conscientious objection is a familiar issue in cases of abortion or contraception. What about conscientious objection to physical examinations of the opposite sex? This is the difficulty examined in a thought-provoking article in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics.

In Britain, the problem is complicated. On the one hand, official guidelines from the General Medical Council take a tough line. They state that medical students are not allowed to refuse to participate in parts of their medical training because they have objections of conscience.

On the other hand, a recent survey of British medical students revealed that nearly half of them believed that doctors could conscientiously object to any procedure whatsoever. Among Muslim students, the figure was 76%.

Somewhere there is a disconnect.

Medical authorities in the US are much more accommodating, perhaps because of Federal and state laws mandating conscientious objection. The American Medical Association states that “Students should be required to learn the basic content or principles underlying procedures or activities that they exempt”.

There have been a number of cases in both countries in which Muslim students refused to conduct physical examinations on patients of the opposite sex. They believed that touching someone of the opposite sex who is not related  by blood, by marriage or by the same wet-nurse is wrong.

How should this be resolved? The authors of the article argue that physical examination is a core competency for a doctor and that there should be no exemption: “one must perform the ‘objectionable’ activity itself in order to learn the necessary content and underlying principles.” 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
conscientious objection
Islam