14 May, 2004
Should doctors be forced to abandon their faith? by Terry O’Neill draws attention to the problem of freedom of conscience in health care.
A bit of history is instructive. The first protection of conscience clause debated in the House of Commons was introduced by M.P. Robert McCleave as an amendment to the Omnibus Bill that legalized abortion in Canada in 1969. Mr. McCleave believed that abortion should be legalized, but also believed that ‘freedom of choice’ should be extended to health care workers.
Compare Mr. McCleave’s notion of ‘choice’ with that espoused by Joyce Arthur. Speaking for the “Pro-choice Action Network,” she refuses to respect the choices of health care professionals who do not wish to participate morally controversial procedures. She seems to believe that freedom of conscience is a problem to be solved by abolishing it, at least in the case of those who don’t agree with her. Arthur’s position is doubly ironic, since Henry Morgantaler justified his defiance of Canadian abortion law in a 1970 article titled, A Physician and His Moral Conscience.1
Referral is not a satisfactory solution for many physicians who have grave moral objections to a procedure. Objecting physicians hold themselves morally culpable if they facilitate an abortion by referring a patient for that purpose. Nor is this an unusual view. Consider the controversy in Canada over the deportation and torture of Maher Arar. This suggests that few believe that one can avoid moral responsibility for a wrongful act by arranging for it to be done by someone else.
Certainly, Joyce Arthur does not consider abortion to be a wrongful act. However, she has not explained why others should be forced to abide by her moral views.
Unfortunately, between the writer’s desk and publication, a couple of factual errors were introduced into the story.
In the first place, the Project followed the case from the outset, and the student was provided with the same kind of service extended to others in similar situations. His relationship with the Project has been cordial, but it is incorrect to describe me as “a friend of the would-be doctor.” We have never met.
More important, the final paragraph attributes to me statements that I did not make. While I am, nonetheless, in agreement with a number of the points made, I did not suggest that a devout Muslim doctor might refuse to treat women, nor make any statement to a similar effect.
It would be most unfortunate if this falsely attributed statement were to contribute to the already adverse social pressures experienced by Muslims in North America. Muslim health care workers and students are welcome to contact the Protection of Conscience Project. One of the Project advisors is Dr. Shahid Athar, a regent and former vice-president of the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Chair of its Medical Ethics Committee