Friday, June 27, 2014

Medical Doctors Should Remain "Medical" Doctors

By Naomi Scheinerman

Earlier this year, Britain’s Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, a faculty of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), issued guidelines establishing that the faculty’s Diploma qualifications include a “willingness to prescribe all forms of hormonal contraception, including emergency contraception, regardless of personal beliefs.” Though welcome to undergo the training, those who “hold moral or religious reservations about any contraceptive method,” will not be able to “complete the syllabus [rendering] candidates ineligible for the award of FSRH Diploma” - a legal requirement to practice obstetrics and gynecology in England. Though clinicians may abstain from both performing and counseling regarding abortions, they are required to provide full information on options for unplanned pregnancy and make “timely arrangements” for the patient to see a doctor who is comfortable counseling on abortions.

In this post, I will address three questions: Does the Faculty have the authority to issue guidelines on this matter? If so, are these the correct guidelines to issue? And should we make exemptions to those who hold conscientious objections for religious reasons?

Does the Faculty have the authority to issue guidelines on this matter?
The medical world offers numerous examples of authoritative bodies passing rules of ethical and appropriate treatment. For example, guidelines have codified that informed consent must be acquired from a patient undergoing a medical procedure or participating in a clinical drug trial. Another example: U.S. federal law (HIPPA) protects a patient’s privacy of personal health information such that doctors may not share information with others without the patient’s permission. The authority of the Faculty to issue program guidelines regarding its training is perfectly consistent with our expectations that the medical community governs practitioners’ medicine to ensure ethical and safe care. Medical care cannot be divorced from value judgments, and thus medical training must be considered alongside medical decision making.

Is requiring willingness to prescribe contraception an acceptable use of the Faculty’s power to dictate appropriate medical practice?
I argue that the job of prescribing birth control has become a central part of the job of a gynecologist, and it should be for a number of reasons. Birth control is an ethical and safe option. Women have the right to control their reproduction, and doctors therefore have an obligation to provide access to the means to do so. Patients do not have unlimited rights to services from their doctor - a doctor could and should refuse to operate on an individual who does not need to be operated on. Contraceptive access, in contrast, is not an extravagance, but rather is an important tenant of women’s health. More than just allowing her to regulate her period and perhaps mitigate the negative and uncomfortable experiences of her “natural” cycle, contraception allows women to practice family planning, which has far reaching implications for her overall wellbeing by affecting her job, income, relationships, social network, and status. These results may also be beneficial for her family relations and friendships, as well as, of course, the wellbeing of a child from a pregnancy she neither planned nor wanted. Furthermore, denying a woman access to birth control denies her valid medical desires. Granted, what constitutes a medical necessity is illusive: ultimately numerous medical and nonmedical treatments lead to better welfare and happiness, but it seems strange to classify them all as necessary. However, because birth control affects the body chemically and hormonally, it should be classified under the purview of medicine, and therefore falls within the medical profession.

Should we make exceptions for conscientious objectors, particularly religious conscience objectors?
Just as a conscientious objector to informed consent should be barred from conducting clinical trials, so too should a gynecologist who refuses birth control to women. First, the merits of an argument for conscientious objections must be evaluated, regardless of whether it is religious or nonreligious. One of the primary arguments against contraception is that they are akin to abortions and therefore immoral. This argument is invalid because it relies on a false claim: contraception prevents pregnancy, it does not terminate it. Take for example the anti-vaccine movement: when deciding whether to allow doctors to refuse to vaccinate children, we should only give weight to arguments that are based on scientific claims regarding the safety of vaccines.

Another argument given against contraception is that it increases the rate of casual sex, in particular sex out of wedlock. First, this is a faulty understanding of statistics: access to birth control neither increases nor decreases rates of sexual intercourse, but instead makes it safer. A similar argument was made in the case against the HPV vaccine trials: developing a vaccine that protects against certain kinds of cervical cancers would make girls more promiscuous. This value-loaded claim attempted to maliciously bar an important way to increase sex safety for women and was then proved to be factually incorrect. Even if contraception did increase the rates of sex, either before or after marriage, the argument must prove why this is negative.

Religious reasoning should be scrutinized as vigorously as nonreligious reasoning. For example, the value of having a family is often cited in opposition to contraceptive use by referring to religious texts. However, one could just as easily interpret the value of family in another way: birth control allows women (and their partners) to choose when to have a family, thereby making a more secure, safe, and well-off household. Religious preferences in the medical world should be tolerated only if they do not harm the patient’s welfare. Denial of birth control can and does cause such harm. Religious objectors claim that a patient could see a different doctor, but there are many examples in which this is unfeasible. For instance, a young teenager who wants to become sexually active and is hiding her doctor’s visit from her parents may not simply be able to switch physicians or may be too intimidated to try after being driven off the first time.


The Faculty’s rules are not only permissible, they are imperative for women’s health. They do not suggest that all women should seek birth control or will, nor do they demand that all gynecologists prescribe birth control to all women. Ultimately, the Faculty’s rules are valid because they demand that doctors provide ethically valid and vital medical options to their patients.

Naomi Scheinerman is a Research Assistant at The Hastings Center. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with high honors and in distinction from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she received bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, political science, and Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies. She contributes a bi-weekly column on reproductive health.

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