Conscientious objection: how much discretionary power should physicians have?

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

There has been significant debate about conscientious objection in healthcare in recent years. Some scholars have argued that conscience protections in law and professional codes of conduct may lead to negligence in medical care and may put patient wellbeing at risk. For example, Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu has argued that conscience protections open a “Pandora’s box of idiosyncratic, bigoted, discriminatory medicine”, and that “public servants must act in the public interest, not their own”. 

But should physicians have the right to exercise professional discretion with patients? 

Some scholars, such as Daniel Sulmasy, argue that physician discretion is an essential part of good medical practice, and that restrictions on conscientious objection would have a negative impact on medical care. In a 2017 article in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Sulmasy argued that physicians should have the right to exercise their judgement about which treatments they will provide, provided that they are not practicing medicine in a manner that is discriminatory or harmful to patients. He wrote that “professional judgments are both technical and moral in all cases”  and that it is important to “respect and protect a wide discretionary space for physicians regarding ethically controversial interventions”. According to Sulmasy, 

“Conscientious refraining from actions when such restraint does not risk illness, injury, or death, would not seem to rise to the level of being sufficient grounds for compelling conscience”.

This argument, however, has been criticised. Doug McConnell, an ethicist at the University of Oxford, argues in the journal Bioethics (and in Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog) that too much physician discretion can lead to people being denied basic forms of medical care. While Sulmasy agrees that physicians should not practice discriminatory medicine, his framework still allows for objecting doctors to refuse patients treatment for “commonly accepted ailments, such as rashes, headaches, mild depression and anxiety”. 

McConnell also argues that Sulmasy’s framework undermines the fiduciary relationship that clinicians should have with their patients. Sulmasy appears to give equal weight to the interests of doctors and the interests of patients. Thus, a doctor can refuse a patient a treatment if the treatment conflicts with their ethical or religious convictions. But McConnell argues that this is incompatible with a fiduciary relationship: 

“within fiduciary relationships, the party with the fiduciary duty should place greater weight on the others’ interests and, so be prepared to go against his conscience”. 

Physicians, in other words, should be prepared to put patient interests ahead of their own moral or religious convictions. 

Yet McConnell may have misunderstood Sulmasy’s account of the fiduciary relationship between clinicians and patients. Sulmasy is a student of Edmund Pellegrino — a medical ethicist who wrote at length about the notion of “the patient’s good”, and argued that this should be at the centre of a doctor’s professional concerns. It is hard to believe that Sulmasy would downplay a physician’s duties to their patients. 

Perhaps the real distinction between McConnell and Sulmasy is not their concern for the good of the patient, but rather the way in which they conceptualise the patient’s good. For Sulmasy, the patient’s good is determined by a set of moral and technical considerations, whereas for McConnell, the patient’s good is more a matter of their individual preferences and interests.

This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees.

Conscientious Objection, Professional Discretionary Space, and Good Medicine

Practical Ethics

Doug McConnell

Some argue that good medicine depends on physicians having a wide discretionary space in which they can act on their consciences (Sulmasy, 2017). Interestingly, those who are against conscientious objection in medicine make the exact opposite claim – giving physicians the freedom to act on their consciences will undermine good medicine. So who is right here? . . . [Full text]

Defending freedom of conscience on emergency contraception

CMF Blogs
Reproduced with permission

Philippa Taylor*

The UK’s biggest abortion provider, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), has attacked pharmacists who do not sell the ‘morning-after pill’ for conscience reasons. 

After one incident when a pharmacist would not dispense emergency contraception to a woman for ‘personal’ reasons, BPAS condemned both the pharmacist and the conscience protections provided to pharmacists. A petition was set up to prevent pharmacists from claiming freedom of conscience rights. 

Under the current law, covered by guidance from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), pharmacists with a genuine conscientious objection to selling the pill may refer the customer to another pharmacist.

However, BPAS complained that it is ‘impossible to overstate the significance of even one pharmacist conscientiously objecting to selling the morning-after pill’. 

Fortunately, the General Pharmaceutical Council, in this case, upheld its guidelines and the consequent media coverage has now died down, temporarily at least.

This may seem like a one-off minor incident, but it is an illustration of increasing pressures on freedom of conscience protections. It is often assumed that the role of the conscience in medicine is relevant only to a few specialised and limited areas such as contraception or abortion, but in fact, the concept of the conscience goes right to the heart of what it means to act in a moral way, to act with integrity.

If we do not stand by those who are under pressure, the problems will only get worse and will spread. A well-known quote, often attibuted to Burke though it may have come originally from J S Mill, warns: ‘He should not be lulled to repose by the delusion that he does no harm who takes no part in public affairs. He should know that bad men need no better opportunity than when good men look on and do nothing.’

The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) has therefore written to the General Pharmaceutical Council to ensure they are aware of our concerns and to thank them for holding to their guidance. The text of our letter is as follows, with their response after it:

‘I am writing to you following the recent news coverage of a Lloyds pharmacy worker who, according to news reports, conscientiously objected to selling the morning-after pill and directed a customer to another pharmacy instead. I note that a petition has since been set up to prevent pharmacists from claiming conscientious objection rights.

‘The Christian Medical Fellowship is the UK’s largest faith-based group of health professionals and we contributed with both written and oral evidence to your review of your Guidance on Religion, Personal Values and Beliefs. We publicly welcomed the new Guidance and the statement accompanying it, in which the Chief Executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council highlighted the positive contribution that pharmacists’ faith can make in their provision of care. We also welcomed the clear statement that: “Pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs”.

‘We all aspire to person-centred care. In any care scenario, there are (at least) two parties – the carer and the one receiving care – each of whom has rights. The General Pharmaceutical Council guidance helpfully achieves a balance between the patient’s right to service access and the pharmacist’s right to freedom of conscience.

Respect for the sincerely held religious and moral beliefs of employees is essential and we are concerned that some of the demands being made, based on this one recent case, would marginalise the beliefs, values and religion of pharmacists disproportionately and unnecessarily, and trivialise their right to freedom of conscience under the law. Despite widespread coverage of this case, we have yet to see evidence of recurring complaints under the present provisions.

‘While we strongly support the right to freedom of conscience for pharmacists, we do also emphasise the importance of openness and sensitive communication with colleagues and employers; any refusal to supply should be made courteously and sensitively.

‘On behalf of CMF, I want to thank the Council for protecting the right of pharmacists to refuse to engage in certain procedures that violate their most profound moral convictions.

‘I also encourage the Council to continue to make it clear, publicly, that all pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs.

Yours faithfully

Dr Mark Pickering
Chief Executive, CMF

The General Pharmaceutical Council replied with the following two sentences:

‘Our existing guidance In practice: Guidance on religion, personal values and beliefs (to which you refer) remains in place. We have no current plans to review it. As you are aware, the guidance sits under our standards for pharmacy professionals and relates to standard 1, Pharmacy professionals must provide person-centred care.’

The point here is simple but vital: if we care about liberty and personal integrity, we must make a reasoned defence of it in the public square, from the smallest incident to the biggest.

Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Perils of Empirical Ethical Research

JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(8):e198628. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.8628

Daniel P. Sulmasy

Al Rabadi et al1 compare statistics on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) available from public databases for the states of Washington and Oregon and find similar profiles and trends, which is unsurprising given the similarity of the laws and demographic characteristics of these states. Among the unanswered questions are what such a study can contribute to medical ethics (about PAS or any other ethical controversy) and what the limits are of such work.

Cautions

First, it should be noted that the medical literature is, in general, favorably disposed toward the empirical and the new. Although this predilection is often advantageous for scientific progress, it introduces a problematic bias when applied to ethical questions. The appeal of the study by Al Rabadi et al1 is that it is empirical, and by comparing data from 2 states for the first time, it can be considered novel. Because there are new reports each year and the practice of PAS is legal in only a few states, descriptive reports about PAS are published frequently. This means, however, that articles defending the ethical status quo (ie, against PAS) tend to be shut out of the medical literature because they are not reporting anything new and, therefore, cannot have any data. The result is an impression of growing acceptance of PAS, but it really represents an artifact of a scientific bias. . . . [Full text]

“Do or Refer” Doctors Are Not Allowed to Use Their Best Judgment for Individual Patients (No More Jeanette Halls)

Choice is an Illusion

Margaret Dore

Yesterday, a doctor asked me about “do or refer” provisions in some of the newer bills seeking to legalize assisted suicide in the United States. For this reason, I now address the subject in the context of a 2018 Wisconsin bill, which did not pass.

The bill, AB 216, required the patient’s attending physician to “fulfill the request for medication or refer,” i.e. to write a lethal prescription for the purpose of killing the patient, or to make an effective referral to another physician, who would do it.

The bill also said that the attending physician’s failure to comply would be “unprofessional conduct” such that the physician would be subject to discipline. The bill states:

[F]ailure of an attending physician to fulfill a request for medication [the lethal dose] constitutes unprofessional conduct if the attending physician refuses or fails to make a good faith attempt to transfer the requester’s care and treatment to another physician who will act as attending physician under this chapter and fulfill the request for medication. (Emphasis added).[1]

The significance of do or refer is that it’s anti-patient, by not allowing doctors to use their best judgment in individual cases.

Consider Oregonian Jeanette Hall. In 2000, she made a settled decision to use Oregon’s assisted suicide law in lieu of being treated for cancer. Her doctor, Kenneth Stevens, who opposed assisted suicide, thought that her chances with treatment were good. Over several weeks, he stalled her request for assisted suicide and finally convinced her to be treated for cancer.

Yes, Dr Stevens was against assisted suicide generally, but he also thought that Jeanette was a good candidate for treatment and indeed she was. She has been cancer free for 19 years. In a recent article, Jeanette states

I wanted to do our law and I wanted Dr. Stevens to help me. Instead, he encouraged me to not give up and ultimately I decided to fight the cancer. I had both chemotherapy and radiation. I am so happy to be alive!

If “do or refer,” as proposed in the Wisconsin bill, had been in effect in Oregon, Dr. Stevens would have been risking a finding of unprofessional conduct, and therefore his license, to help Jeanette understand what her true options were.

Is this what we want for our doctors, to have them be afraid of giving us their best judgment, for fear of sanction or having their licenses restricted or even revoked?  

With proposed mandatory “do or refer,” assisted suicide proponents show us their true nature. They don’t want to enhance our choices, they want to limit our access to information to railroad us to death.

Notes

[1] AB 216 states:

156.21 Duties and immunities. (1) No health care facility or health care provider may be charged with a crime, held civilly liable, or charged with unprofessional conduct for any of the following:  

(a) Failing to fulfill a request for medication, except that failure of an attending physician to fulfill a request for medication constitutes unprofessional conduct if the attending physician refuses or fails to make a good faith attempt to transfer the requester’s care and treatment to another physician who will act as attending physician under this chapter and fulfill the request for medication. (Emphasis added).

Margaret Dore is an attorney in Washington State where assisted suicide is legal. She is also president of Choice is an Illusion, a nonprofit corporation opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia worldwide.

U.S. Public Health Service STD Experiments in Guatemala (1946–1948) and Their Aftermath

Kayte Spector-Bagdady, Paul A. Lombardo

Abstract

The U.S. Public Health Service’s sexually transmitted disease (STD) experiments in Guatemala are an important case study not only in human subjects research transgressions but also in the response to serious lapses in research ethics. This case study describes how individuals in the STD experiments were tested, exposed to STDs, and exploited as the source of biological specimens—all without informed consent and often with active deceit. It also explores and evaluates governmental and professional responses that followed the public revelation of these experiments, including by academic institutions, professional organizations, and the U.S. federal government, pushing us to reconsider both how we prevent such lapses in the future and how we respond when they are first revealed.


SpectorBagdady K, Lombardo PA. U.S. Public Health Service STD Experiments in Guatemala (1946–1948) and Their Aftermath. Ethics & Human Research. 2019 Apr; 41(2): 29-34.

Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying

S. Sinmyee V. J. Pandit J. M. Pascual A. Dahan T. Heidegger G. Kreienbühl D. A. Lubarsky J. J. Pandit

Summary

A decision by a society to sanction assisted dying in any form should logically go hand-in-hand with defining the acceptable method(s). Assisted dying is legal in several countries and we have reviewed the methods commonly used, contrasting these with an analysis of capital punishment in the USA. We expected that, since a common humane aim is to achieve unconsciousness at the point of death, which then occurs rapidly without pain or distress, there might be a single technique being used.

However, the considerable heterogeneity in methods suggests that an optimum method of achieving unconsciousness remains undefined. In voluntary assisted dying (in some US states and European countries), the common method to induce unconsciousness appears to be self-administered barbiturate ingestion, with death resulting slowly from asphyxia due to cardiorespiratory depression. Physician-administered injections (a combination of general anaesthetic and neuromuscular blockade) are an option in Dutch guidelines. Hypoxic methods involving helium rebreathing have also been reported.

The method of capital punishment (USA) resembles the Dutch injection technique, but specific drugs, doses and monitoring employed vary. However, for all these forms of assisted dying, there appears to be a relatively high incidence of vomiting (up to 10%), prolongation of death (up to 7 days), and re-awakening from coma (up to 4%), constituting failure of unconsciousness. This raises a concern that some deaths may be inhumane, and we have used lessons from the most recent studies of accidental awareness during anaesthesia to describe an optimal means that could better achieve unconsciousness. We found that the very act of defining an ‘optimum’ itself has important implications for ethics and the law.


Sinmyee S, Pandit VJ, Pascual JM, Dahan A, Heidegger T, Kreienbühl G, Lubarsky DA, Pandit JJ. Legal and ethical implications of defining an optimum means of achieving unconsciousness in assisted dying. Anaesthesia. 2019 May;74(5): 630-637.

Can conscientious objection lead to eugenic practices against LGBT individuals?

Toni C. Saad, Daniel Rodger

Abstract

In a recent article in this journal, Abram Brummett argues that new and future assisted reproductive technologies will provide challenging ethical questions relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. Brummett notes that it is likely that some clinicians may wish to conscientiously object to offering assisted reproductive technologies to LGBT couples on moral or religious grounds, and argues that such appeals to conscience should be constrained. We argue that Brummett’s case is unsuccessful because he: does not adequately interact with his opponents’ views; equivocates on the meaning of ‘natural’; fails to show that the practice he opposes is eugenic in any non-trivial sense; and fails to justify and explicate the relevance of the naturalism he proposes. We do not argue that conscience protections should exist for those objecting to providing LGBT people with artificial reproductive technologies, but only show that Brummett’s arguments are insufficient to prove that they should not.


Saad C, Rodger D.  Can conscientious objection lead to eugenic practices against LGBT individuals? Bioethics; 2019 Feb 08

Is there a difference between palliative sedation and euthanasia?

BioEdge

Xavier Symons

One common argument in favour of legalising euthanasia is that several accepted medical practices already involve hastening the death of patients. Some ethicists claim, for example, that we are already hastening patients’ deaths in palliative care contexts through the administration of toxic levels of opioids and sedatives to patients. In palliative sedation — a relatively common procedure in end of life scenarios — doctors administer strong doses of drugs such as midazolam to sedate a patient. Ostensibly this is done to relieve refractory symptoms, yet some suggest that doctors are fully aware that the drugs may bring about a quicker death. In light of this, some ethicists argue that we need not be so concerned about hastening death through euthanasia — this is a mere extension of the already existing practices in palliative care.

There are two common rejoinders to this argument. The first is that palliative sedation does not even hasten death — in fact, studies show that it actually may prolong life. Thus, there is no causal link between the administration of analgesics and barbiturates and the death of the patient.

The second is that the practice of palliative sedation is defensible on the basis of double effect reasoning. The doctrine of double effect is quite difficult to summarise in a sentence, but essentially the claim is that doctors do not intend for the patient’s death to be hastened, even though they foresee that this may be the case.

A new article in the Journal of Medical Ethics attempts to critique these two responses. Doctor Thomas David Riisfeldt of the University of New South Wales argues that empirical evidence on palliative sedation does not in fact provide a reliable indication of whether or not palliative sedation hastens death. In a blog post summarising the article, Riisfeldt writes:

“[the claim that pain killers and sedatives do not hasten death] is not watertight at all.  This is mainly owing to the ethical limitations (more so, the ethical impossibility) of conducting high-quality randomised controlled trials to definitively compare survival times in patients receiving or not receiving palliative opioids and sedatives, along with a number of other practical difficulties.  I conclude that adopting a position of agnosticism on the matter is appropriate”.

In the article, Riisfeldt also suggests that the doctrine of double effect is indefensible, and argues that — in the case of palliative sedation — there is no meaningful distinction between the direct effect of the action (pain relief) and the unintended consequence (death).

So, does Riisfeldt’s critique itself hold water? He makes a series of controversial claims regarding the nature of palliative sedation, and whether it violates the sanctity of life principle (he believes that it does). It seems to this author that his essay would be befitting a robust response from someone familiar with the literature on palliative sedation and also the across the ethics of double effect.


This article is published by Xavier Symons and BioEdge under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation to BioEdge. Commercial media must contact BioEdge for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.