The battle between patients' rights to seek health care and doctors' rights to follow their conscience will only grow more heated as technology further blurs medical and moral boundaries. How should society balance the medical wishes of a patient with the moral beliefs of a doctor?
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle correctly stated last month that it is "unconscionable to deny our citizens the full range of needed medical treatment in order to satisfy the ideological views of some health-care professionals." The statement, included in Doyle's veto of a bill that would protect health-care professionals from punishment if they refuse to participate in procedures such as euthanasia and in vitro fertilization on moral or religious grounds, reflects the increasing difficulty of integrating religious faith and scientific advancement in American life. A similar conscientious objector bill recently passed the Michigan House of Representatives.
Doyle was right in saying we cannot morally deny health care to those who need it. On the other hand, do abortion, euthanasia or cloning fall under the category of "needed medical treatment"? Emergency care that preserves life is not what is at issue here. The bill refers specifically to sterilization, abortion and assisted suicide along with using in vitro embryos for research and withholding feeding tubes.
Obviously, most of the procedures under discussion destroy life; in fact, the technology now available has forced doctors and other health-care workers to decide whether to play God.
Doctors are now asked not only to preserve life, but also to create and destroy. Such momentous capabilities deserve the most painstaking consideration. That consideration should include the feelings and beliefs of those asked to bear the burden of carrying out these life-changing procedures.
Doctors and other health-care workers swear by the Hippocratic Oath before practicing medicine. The classical version of the oath reads in part: "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness, I will guard my life and my art." A more modern version, written by Louis Lasagna in 1964, addresses the issue of dealing with human lives. "Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God."
Those involved in medicine who abhor these procedures must be respected and supported in their protection of human life. At the very least they must be legally allowed to follow the oath they have made. Doctors who refuse to perform euthanasia or abortion keep their promise to society. They are the true healers, not their counterparts who break medicine's most solemn oath.