Patient Rights, Doctor Rights, and Religious Freedom – What Gives?

Many Christians are calling the HHS mandate, which establishes some rights for patients, including access to birth control, and requiring that all medical plans contain such, an attack on religious freedom. Now, I read this article about Muslim doctors who would rather not perform certain functions on someone of the opposite gender because of a modesty code. Again, this debate is being framed around the idea of religious freedom. Should the government establish patient rights, doctor rights, and such that would trump one’s religious convictions – or stay out of it completely? How does one mediate such conflict?

An excerpt from Can Muslim Doctors Refuse to Treat the Opposite Sex? | First Things:

Not too long ago, the ethics of medicine were pretty straightforward. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical professionals generally followed the “do no harm” maxim, seeing themselves (ideally) as duty-bound to protect and preserve all human life.

But times have changed. Society has grown increasingly morally pluralistic, while at the same time medical technology has advanced, making the work of medical professionals far more complicated. For example, abortion is now considered a right throughout most of the West, but many physicians conscientiously object to participating in taking the lives of fetuses. Many gay couples use in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and sophisticated artificial insemination procedures to have children, while some fertility doctors resist participating for moral reasons. With health care cost-cutting coming strongly to the fore, most mainstream bioethicists want to grant doctors the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment they consider “futile” because it is expensive to merely “extend the time of dying.”

These moral conflicts have sparked an increasingly heated bioethical controversy: Whether—and to what extent—medical professionals have a right of conscience to refuse their services based on religious or moral objections to what the patient desires.

This situation would be dicey enough within the framework of the familiar secular-religious clash, but now it has taken a new twist. With the Muslim population increasing in Western Europe and the United States, that faith’s strict religious requirement to maintain modesty between the sexes has prompted some Muslim medical professionals to ask whether female doctors can refuse to examine or treat any male patients at all—and vice-versa. These objections have been relatively few in number (thus far), but they raise a far stronger and more sweeping demand than the many ethical objections arising from Judeo-Christian morality, objections which often center on the refusal to prescribe a certain drug or administer a specific treatment. The layer of complexity the Muslim claim adds to the debate also makes it impossible to reduce the “religious case” to a simple argument or clear-cut demand for exemption.


© 2012, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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2 comments on “Patient Rights, Doctor Rights, and Religious Freedom – What Gives?
  1. Thanks for posting this, Rick. I would tend to want to keep the govt. out, but I could see how a physician who let someone die could be held liable. I wish I knew the principles of civil lawsuits better to see how they could apply. Smith seemed to lay out some good principles at the end.

    On this topic, I wonder if the groups protesting the HHS mandate (and more power to them) have erred in making it about religious liberty rather than liberty as a whole. Some of the arguments that I have read have been calling for a broader protection for religious objections rather than challenging the right of the state to mandate anyone to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage. The message shouldn’t be “You can coerce someone with no religious objection, but don’t coerce us.” I’d like an atheist business owner to be able to decide about contraceptive coverage just as much as Christian employers.

    • Great thoughts, Scott. The broader liberty argument would make much more sense. It seems like exceptions are being granted for institutions, but not individuals. Certain schools, churches, hospitals are granted exceptions because their institutional values aren’t in sync with abortifacients, etc. Perhaps Muslims would need to found their own hospital and make it explicitly clear what they will and will not do. Hard to think a male doctor would let a female die if brought in on some emergency, but perhaps another doctor in the same hospital would be willing to perform the particular surgery.

      From the patient’s perspective, Mimi and I have doctors of the same respective genders, but what if I was in a plan that had no male doctors? Do I have a right to demand my insurance company approve coverage for a doctor outside the network based on some human right? Probably not. But what if I’m in a government plan that mandates I see a female doctor? So many questions.

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