Religious Coercion of Physicians: Whose Conscience Is It Anyway?

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Leonard Fleck, PhD

Neil Mahoney is 64 years old and has a terminal cancer with a predicted life expectancy of 4-16 months. He lives in Colorado, a state that approved an aid-in-dying law in 2016. His physician is Dr. Barbara Morris, 65, a geriatrician whom he has asked to provide him with the drugs needed to end his life. She has agreed to do just that.

However, Dr. Morris works for the Centura Health Corporation, a Catholic-Adventist hospital system. Dr. Morris was fired from her position when it became public knowledge that she was willing to help Mr. Mahoney to end his life. We should note that she had no intention of doing this within the walls of the hospital or any of its facilities. She would accomplish this in the privacy of Mr. Mahoney’s home.

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Image description: a yellow road sign reads “MORAL DILEMMA AHEAD” in bold black lettering. Image by Liz McDaniel.

In justifying its firing, the hospital CEO said Dr. Morris could be fired for “encouraging” the patient to pursue aid-in-dying, even if she never actually provided or assisted in any other way his accessing the drugs he requested. The CEO cited as a basis for this position the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The directives state that Catholic health care providers (which include everyone working in the institution, whatever their religious commitments or lack thereof) “may never condone or participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide in any way” (emphasis mine). Instead, “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.” Alternatively, the care of that patient should be transferred to another provider, presumably one willing to respect the choice of someone like Mr. Mahoney.

It should be obvious that there is something ethically incongruous about this position. Imagine my walking into a Catholic gun shop in a horribly depressed state of mind and asking the owner to sell me a gun so that I could blow my brains out. He expresses compassion for my awful life circumstances, urges me to seek psychiatric care, then explains that as a Catholic he could not sell me that gun, knowing my intention. Having said all that, he informs me that a mile away is another gun store owned by an atheist who would have no qualms about selling me that gun. Given his religious commitments, would sharing such information be ethically justified?

Let’s translate the answer to that rhetorical question into Mr. Mahoney’s situation. He went to that hospital to get care for his cancer. He did not go there to receive aid-in-dying. However, imagine this situation. His cancer treatment at the hospital is failing miserably. At this point he does request aid-in-dying since he has no interest in redemptive suffering, either for himself or anyone else.

The hospital could transfer him to another hospital where his wish could be fulfilled. However, that sounds like the situation of our Catholic gun shop owner. Alternatively, they could explain to him that it would be contrary to their corporate conscience to effect that transfer. In addition, they believe several doses of redemptive suffering would be therapeutic for his spiritual well-being.

Mr. Mahoney could retain an attorney who would point out that Mr. Mahoney has the legal right to leave the hospital against both medical and spiritual advice. Other patients, however, who might be in much worse medical circumstances (unable to be transferred) would not be able to exercise that right or the right to access aid-in-dying. That brings us to the crux of this essay.

Whose conscience should prevail in this situation? If a physician or other health professional were asked to participate in some way in a request for aid-in-dying, and if such participation were contrary to their deeply held religious or ethical beliefs, we (political authorities in a liberal, pluralistic, tolerant, democratic society) would respect those beliefs and allow them to avoid participating. This is equal and reciprocal moral respect. What would that require if Mr. Mahoney were this latter hypothetical patient stuck in that hospital? Perhaps that would require allowing a physician who was not attached to the hospital to enter the hospital for purposes of providing aid-in-dying. It is hard to imagine Centura agreeing to that.

The alternative would be to allow a member of their medical staff who believed providing aid-in-dying to a patient in these circumstances was both ethically permissible and obligatory to do just that. However, Centura has made clear that no member of that institution would be allowed to do that, thereby imposing their conscientious beliefs on hundreds of staff who might not agree with that belief. This seems contrary to the notion of reciprocal moral respect.

Centura would expect that Catholic physicians in secular hospitals would be allowed to refrain from participating in any act of aid-in-dying. Why not allow non-Catholic physicians (or liberal Catholic physicians) in Catholic hospitals to act in accord with their sense of compassionate conscientiousness in Mr. Mahoney-like situations? There is a political and ethical contradiction here: the hospital is invoking our liberal pluralistic political heritage to secure protection for their conscientious beliefs, but denying that same protection to staff and patients within their walls who disagree with that religious commitment.

The hospital might portray itself as a “religious institution,” though this is misleading at best. It is not a church whose membership is comprised of individuals who freely choose to endorse a specific faith perspective. Hospitals, whether having any religious affiliation or not, are public institutions accepting public money (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) to care for patients with or without any religious faith. People seek health care in those institutions, not spiritual guidance, and certainly not spiritual coercion.

Noteworthy in today’s health care environment is the acquisition of smaller hospitals by larger hospital chains, including Catholic hospitals absorbing secular hospitals and imposing a Catholic identity on them. Almost 20% of all hospital beds in the United States today are under Catholic auspices. Beyond that, these hospital chains are buying up all sorts of medical practices as a way of assuring a steady (and profitable) stream of patients and patient revenue. In effect, patients are being drafted (unbeknownst to themselves) into a religious environment, potentially to become soldiers in the cause of redemptive suffering.

More problematic, as noted earlier, was that Dr. Morris was going to provide aid-in-dying in the privacy of Mr. Mahoney’s home. Mr. Mahoney was likely not a saint. Still, it is unconscionable that he would have to undergo redemptive suffering for the sake of an institution to which he owed no allegiance to satisfy the conscience of that institution and its CEO.

Finally, a Canadian Catholic hospital was recently legally obligated to make available aid-in-dying to patients in accord with Canadian law. That service would be provided in a building adjacent to the hospital and owned by the hospital. Physicians employed by the hospital would be free to provide that service. This, I conclude, is a reasonable compromise that reflects mutual moral respect regarding an ethically complex situation rather than uncompromising redemptive religious righteousness. This also represents the equal political respect required for the peaceful functioning of a liberal pluralistic society and health care system.

Leonard Fleck photoLeonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Acting Director and Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, February 6, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Fleck: Health Care and Social Justice: Just Take Two Aspirin for Your Tumor If You Cannot Afford Your Cancer Care; Medicare For All: This Is Going to HurtGreed Is God: The Divine Right to Avaricious Drug PricingGene Editing: God’s Will or God’s Won’t

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Making Martyrs of Our Children: Religious Exemptions in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Devan Stahl, PhD

On August 2, 2018, Seth Welch called 911 after finding his 10-month-old daughter, Mary Anne Welch, unresponsive in her crib. Mary was pronounced dead at the scene and the medical examiner determined Mary’s death was the result of malnutrition and dehydration. During interviews, Seth Welch and his wife Tatiana Fusari admitted they were aware of Mary’s skinny appearance for at least a month prior to her death, but claimed that they had fed her appropriately and did not believe her to be ill. The parents are now awaiting trial for felony murder and first-degree child abuse.

The case has made national headlines, because the parents claim their decision not to take Mary to a doctor was based, in part, on their religious beliefs. Mrs. Fusari said she failed to reach out for medical help for her daughter because she feared having her children removed by Child Protective Services, a lack of faith in the medical system, and “religious reasons.” Further, Mr. Welch claims he is being unfairly charged in Mary’s death because of his “very strong faith.” Neither Mr. Welch nor Mrs. Fusari have explained their religious beliefs, but in Facebook videos, Mr. Welch claims he is “not opposed to medicine or doctors,” but he believes some doctors are part of a “priesthood of the medical cult.” He also claims not to believe in vaccines, and expressed a desire to live in a “commune of Christian disciples living off the grid somewhere.” The reasons Mary’s parents did not take her to see a physician appear to be multifaceted, but their claims to religious liberty are a hot button issue in bioethics and politics today.

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Image description: a baby is photographed lying down, a hand is holding a stethoscope to the baby’s chest. Image source: Bread for the World/Flickr Creative Commons

The case of Mary Anne Welch is yet another in a long line of child neglect and abuse cases where a religious exemption defense is likely to be mounted. All U.S. states have laws prohibiting child abuse and neglect, but 39 states also have laws protecting parents from abuse and neglect charges (though not murder charges) when they fail to provide medical assistance to their children because of their religious beliefs. Religious exemption laws are meant to protect the religious liberty of individuals who use faith-based practices in place of medical science; although in many states the religious exemption only applies to people who are part of “recognized” religious denominations. These exemptions grew out of a Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) ruling after the 1974 passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which specified that religious exemptions be added to states’ child protection laws. In 1983, HEW adopted new regulations that removed the requirement for religious exemption, however, few states have repealed their religious exemption laws. In many states with exemptions, including Michigan where Mr. Welch and Mrs. Fusari reside, courts can order medical services to be provided to a child whose health or life are at risk without medical care.

In nearly all cases, competent adults are free to make medical decisions according to their religious beliefs, and cannot have treatment forced on them for any reason. At the same time, parents have certain obligations toward their children, which restrict their right to exercise their religious beliefs on behalf of their children. In the famous U.S. Supreme Court case Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), the court ruled that “Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves,” but they are not free “to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.”

The case of Mary Anne Welch is a microcosm of a larger debate happening in health care around religious liberty and the rights of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that parental desires regarding their child’s medical treatment should be followed, unless these decisions clearly go against the child’s best interests. At the same time, for decades the AAP has been opposed to religious exemption laws. In cases where parents are acting maliciously or with gross indifference to the well-being of their child, it is easy to see why overriding parental decision-making would be appropriate. Prosecuting parents for neglect and abuse if their child suffers as a result of their decisions feels appropriate as well. Knowing very little about Mr. Welch and Mrs. Fusari, however, it would be presumptuous to make any judgments about their fitness as parents, or about their care for Mary. At this point it is not clear that given Mary’s weight loss, other reasonable parents in a comparable situation would have taken their child to the doctor regardless of their religious beliefs. Time will tell if Mary’s death should have been foreseeable or if it would have been preventable with proper medical care.

What is likely to happen in the meantime, and seems to be happening already in the media, is that Mr. Welch and Mrs. Fusari’s religious beliefs will be scrutinized. (Their concerns about the dangers of hospitalization are supported by recent studies about medical errors.) Religious exemption laws regarding parental neglect are controversial, and critics are right to question the legitimacy of such laws when children die as a result of their parent’s religious beliefs. Despite their religious beliefs, we ought to hold parents to a standard where they are expected to prevent injuries to their children. At the same time, we ought not to hold parents such as Mr. Welch to a higher standard for parental care, simply because he has particular religious beliefs that are not widely held by other parents. Plenty of parents choose to opt out of certain medical treatments for religious and non-religious reasons alike, and it is not clear that medical orthodoxy should always be determinative of a child’s best interest. Time will tell if other prudent parents would have taken a child in Mary’s condition to the doctor. If that is found to be the case, then Mary’s parents should be held accountable for their decisions.

Devan Stahl photoDevan Stahl, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 4, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Stahl: Mass Shootings, Mental Illness and StigmaDisability and the Decisional Capacity to Vote

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Dr. Stahl presents at 2016 Conference on Medicine and Religion

stahl-crop-2015Center Assistant Professor Dr. Devan Stahl recently presented the paper “The Value of Circus Clowns: What Clinical Ethicists Can Learn from Chaplains About Credentialing, Standardization, and Professionalization” at the 2016 Conference on Medicine and Religion. The conference was held in Houston, TX.

Drawing from an old analogy for a hospital chaplain being akin to a circus clown, Dr. Stahl’s presentation highlighted the critical overlaps between chaplains and ethicists as they pertain to the challenges of standardization and credentialing. Using her experience as both a hospital chaplain and clinical ethicist, Dr. Stahl explored topics such as ideological diversity, outcomes measurement, training, public visibility, and pluralism as they pertain to both roles. Dr. Stahl argued that there is continuing value in understanding the role of the clinical ethicist as a kind of outsider on the health care team, and that clinical ethics consultants have much to learn from their chaplain counterparts on how to maintain a clown-like status.

Learn more about Dr. Stahl’s work on our website.