Should doctors be forced to abandon their faith?
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (2004)
Western Standard Magazine,
Reproduced with permission
The male Christian student received a failing grade
after completing his hospital rotation in obstetrics and gynecology because
of differences with his teachers on abortion and related issues, says Sean
Murphy, administrator of the Protection of Conscience Project based in
Powell River, B.C.
During the 2000 election campaign, former prime minister Jean Chretien
attacked his rival Stockwell Day, leader of the Canadian Alliance, over his
proposal for a referendum on regulating abortion, claiming "we have social
peace with that at this moment."
Critics were quick to point out that Chretien's so-called "social peace"
was in fact a government enforced pro-choice ideology, and that the absence
of laws regulating abortion were as much a form of public policy as any
legislation. Some say the case of a medical student at the University of
Manitoba is evidence of what happens to those who buck official policy. The
male Christian student received a failing grade after completing his
hospital rotation in obstetrics and gynecology because of differences with
his teachers on abortion and related issues, says Sean Murphy, administrator
of the Protection of Conscience Project based in Powell River, B.C. Murphy
is a friend of the would-be doctor,1
who doesn't want to be identified and is not talking to reporters.
After receiving the failing mark last summer, the student appealed the grade
three times. In February, he lost his final appeal and cannot graduate from
The unofficial story, reported by local media in Winnipeg, was that Bryan
Magwood, the university's associate dean at the faculty of medicine had
suggested that the student failed because he ran afoul of university policy.
That policy apparently dictates that med students must inform patients of
any and all options available to them that fall within the medical standard
of care. So even pro-life students are obligated to tell patients about
abortions and, if necessary, refer them to abortionists. Magwood claims that
the reports are off-base.
"What I can tell you is that the media coverage that has gone out so far
has been incomplete or inaccurate," he says, "and that we are following this
according to our academic policy and procedure." Beyond that, he refused to
comment on the case, citing privacy concerns.
But Murphy says that the trials of this one student clearly illustrates
the need for some kind of protection-of-conscience legislation in Canada,
which would save religious individuals from violating their faith by being
compelled to do things professionally that they cannot countenance in good
conscience. "I can tell you that the notion that the student is required to
refer or perform abortions, for example, or other controversial procedures,
is inconsistent with the policy of the physicians of Manitoba," he says.
"But the problem that arises with medical students is that people in
positions of influence and power are able to use that influence and power to
bring about a situation that is inconsistent with official policies."
There are those who maintain that it's not up to the physician to
practice in ways that mesh with their own values, since those principles
might not be shared by the patient. Joyce Arthur, a spokesperson for the
Pro-Choice Action Network in Vancouver, says all students, including
pro-life ones, should be compelled to learn about abortions and refer
patients to pro-choice doctors, whether they like it or not. "It's sort of
an obligation that they learn about this basic and very common medical
procedure," she says. She adds that if prolifers cannot stomach this, then
"they shouldn't be a doctor" and they'd have to find a different profession.
Arthur contends the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) has a policy that
supports her belief that, at the very least, pro-life doctors have an
obligation to refer women seeking an abortion to a prochoice doctor, but
that's not quite true. According to a
1998 CMA policy, "A
physician whose moral or religious beliefs prevent him or her from
recommending or performing an abortion" has an obligation merely to "inform
the patient" of this, "so that she may consult another physician."
At the heart of the issue may be the question of whether patients have
the right to whatever procedures are available to them, or whether doctors
are free to dispense information based on their medical knowledge as well as
their personal moral judgment. "Nothing in medicine, its codes of conduct,
or medical ethics gives a 'trump right'to a patient seeking a particular
medical service that involves vexed ethical questions,"
wrote Iain Benson. Benson is
the executive director of the Ottawa-based Centre for Cultural Renewal, a
non-profit group focusing on keeping religion integrated in public policy,
in response to the Manitoba case.
Even Canadians who are pro-choice and who are genuinely at "peace" with
the regulatory status quo in this country should be concerned about the
human rights implications of the case, says Murphy. The right for faithful
doctors to dissent from a society's secular value system is critical in any
democratic society, he notes, but it also raises some thorny questions. What
if a devout Muslim doctor refused to treat women because it violated his
says Murphy, "we know we have a controversy." But the bottom line, he
maintains, is ensuring that there is at least some dialogue about things
like this. Otherwise the "social peace" means nothing more than those that
speak up for their principles end up silenced. Should doctors be forced to
abandon their faith?
The Christian medical student at the University of Manitoba who is
the subject of this story will be credited with having passed his
rotation in obstetrics and gynaecology and will graduate from medical
school. He had been failed primarily because of differences with his
preceptors on issues related to abortion and contraception, and the
failing mark was upheld in successive appeals. It is not clear why
University authorities decided to accommodate the student, having
previously been unwilling to accept his position. The story was
published before the final outcome was made public.
In two respects, the story was inaccurate, as explained in the
following letter from the Administrator to the magazine:
1. . . . 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.
2. 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.