July 2, 2022

The Lancet under fire

Hi there,

After more than 2,000 deaths, most of them civilians, I ought to write something about the war in Gaza. But it is excruciatingly difficult for no matter what you say, it will be denounced by one side or the other as biased and idiotic.

The Lancet recently published an incendiary letter attacking Israel which provoked furious replies from Israeli doctors. One allegation was that The Lancet had lowered its high editorial standards by publishing politically biased material.

I’m not sure whether this holds water. The Lancet – and most of the other leading journals, like Science, Nature, JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine – often take sides on issues like abortion, euthanasia, healthcare and so on. They don’t ignore them and hope that they will disappear. Why not a war?

Well, for one thing, wars are even more ethically snarled than abortion. It may be beyond the wit of the editors. Painting one side as the villain is simply wrong; both sides have made bad choices.

Nonetheless I think that it is important for medical journals at least to point out that war is always a deeply ethical issue, not just a utilitarian calculus. If doctors are supposed to be custodians of humane values, their journals ought to be ethical gadflies.

That’s why I think that The Lancet is right to take a stand on this tragic war and the that the other journals have been remiss, perhaps even cowardly, in ignoring it. What do you think?   

Michael Cook
Should medical journals take sides in wars?