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.

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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]

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]

Physician-Assisted Suicide: Why Neutrality by Organized Medicine Is Neither Neutral Nor Appropriate

Daniel P. Sulmasy, Ilora Finlay, Faith Fitzgerald, Kathleen Foley, Richard Payne, Mark Siegler

Abstract

Journal of General Internal Medicine

It has been proposed that medical organizations adopt neutrality with respect to physician-assisted suicide (PAS), given that the practice is legal in some jurisdictions and that membership is divided. We review developments in end-of-life care and the role of medical organizations with respect to the legalization of PAS since the 1990s. We argue that moving from opposition to neutrality is not ethically neutral, but a substantive shift from prohibited to optional. We argue that medical organizations already oppose many practices that are legal in many jurisdictions, and that unanimity among membership has not been required for any other clinical or ethical policy positions. Moreover, on an issue so central to the meaning of medical professionalism, it seems important for organized medicine to take a stand. We subsequently review the arguments in favor of PAS (arguments from autonomy and mercy, and against the distinction between killing and allowing to die (K/ATD)) and the arguments against legalization (the limits of autonomy, effects on the patient-physician relationship, the meaning of healing, the validity of the K/ATD distinction, the social nature of suicide, the availability of alternatives, the propensity for incremental extension, and the meaning of control). We conclude that organized medicine should continue its opposition to PAS.


Sulmasy DP, Finlay I, Fitzgerald F, Foley K, Payne R, Siegler M. Physician-Assisted Suicide: Why Neutrality by Organized Medicine Is Neither Neutral Nor Appropriate. J Gen Intern Med. 2018 Aug;33(8):1394-1399. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4424-8. Epub 2018 May 2.

Tolerance, Professional Judgment, and the Discretionary Space of the Physician

Daneil P. Sulmasy

Arguments against physicians’ claims of a right to refuse to provide tests or treatments to patients based on conscientious objection often depend on two premises that are rarely made explicit. The first is that the protection of religious liberty (broadly construed) should be limited to freedom of worship, assembly, and belief. The second is that because professions are licensed by the state, any citizen who practices a licensed profession is required to provide all the goods and services determined by the profession to fall within the scope of practice of that professional specialty and permitted by the state, regardless of any personal religious, philosophical, or moral objection. In this article, I argue that these premises ought to be rejected, and therefore the arguments that depend on them ought also to be rejected. The first premise is incompatible with Locke’s conception of tolerance, which recognizes that fundamental, self-identifying beliefs affect public as well as private acts and deserve a broad measure of tolerance. The second premise unduly (and unrealistically) narrows the discretionary space of professional practice to an extent that undermines the contributions professions ought to be permitted to make to the common good. Tolerance for conscientious objection in the public sphere of professional practice should not be unlimited, however, and the article proposes several commonsense, Lockean limits to tolerance for physician claims of conscientious objection.


Sulmasy DP. Tolerance, Professional Judgment, and the Discretionary Space of the Physician. Camb Q Healthc Ethics. 2017 Jan;26(1):18-31.

The Role of Conscience in Medical Decisions

Daniel P. Sulmasy, M.D.
Center for Practical Bioethics
6 August, 2009.

Does conscience ever clash with professional duties? What do we mean by terms such as ‘conscience’ and ‘conscientious objection’? How should one approach a request from a patient that conflicts with one’s individual conscience?


Conscience and Clinical Care: The Role of Conscience in Medical Decisions

Daniel P. Sulmasy, M.D.
Center for Practical Bioethics
6 August, 2009.

Does conscience ever clash with professional duties? What do we mean by terms such as ‘conscience’ and ‘conscientious objection’? How should one approach a request from a patient that conflicts with one’s individual conscience?

Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and a host of other health care professionals face this dilemma all across America. While recently there has been great interest in conflicts of conscience based upon religious beliefs, conscience is a universal phenomenon, conflicts are ubiquitous, and, fortunately, generally resolvable.

In this lecture, Dr. Daniel Sulmasy will discuss how medical professionals can strive to preserve their moral integrity while also respecting and serving patients with whom they might have deep moral disagreements.

Trailer. For the full lecture, visit the Center for Practical Bioethics