Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Dead Faith

We're hearing a lot lately about conscience clauses that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions of which they don't approve. Also in the news again - though it's an old story - is the Michigan law that would allow doctors to deny treatment to homosexuals on "ethical" grounds.

In logical terms, I believe that a medical worker who refuses to aid a suffering human being on the basis of ethics is like a physicist who bases a belief in perpetual motion on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But logic is, as usual, beside the point.

A similarly unappetizing burlesque of ethics was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when most "respectable" doctors refused to treat patients who'd contracted venereal diseases. As Laurie Garrett notes in Betrayal of Trust,

From the earliest days of organized public health, Americans had exhibited a peculiar inability to cope with the conjunction of three fearsome factors: sex, disease, and death.
In The Physician and Sexuality in Victorian America, John S. and Robin M. Haller describe the situation in more detail:
The same public morality which drove venereal vicims out of the cities of London and Paris in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and later heard from papal pronouncements that syphilis was God's punishment for incontinence, survived in institutions supported by public donations in the nineteenth celltury. Many hospitals in New York and elsewhere had rules prohibiting the treatment of gonorrhea or syphilis.
Indeed, as late as the 1930s, many American hospitals still had an official policy of refusing treatment to victims of venereal disease, even though Hippocrates himself stated that doctors "must inspect the unseemly and handle the horrible." A similar moral delicacy was observed in the early 20th century by doctors in Queensland, Australia, who piously refused to treat aboriginals who'd contracted venereal diseases (from white settlers, as often as not).

Here's the delightful Dr. John Simon of London, writing in 1868 against the use of public money for the prevention and treatment of venereal disease:
Now, it is quite certain that, rightly or wrongly, the proposed appropriation of money would, in the eyes of very large numbers of persons, be in the last degree odious and immoral....I suppose it may be assumed that public policy is very decidely in favour of marriage as against promiscuous fornication; that the latter, however powerless may be laws to prevent it, is, at least, an order of things which no State would willingly foster; that, whereas it has some contagious maladies, such drawbacks from its attractions are not in their kind a matter for general social regret; that venereal diseases are, in principle, infections which a man contracts at his own option, and against which he cannot in any degree claim to be protected by action of others - the less so, of course, as his option is exercised in modes of life contrary to the common good; that thus, prima facie, the true policy of Government is to regard the prevention of venereal diseases as a matter of exclusively private concern. Caveat emptor!
It seems to me that the "religion" of these elaborately squeamish doctors and pharmacists - and their pathetic legislative enablers - amounts to little more than narcissism. These people have a morbid compulsion to trumpet their own spiritual rectitude, and to be recognized for their exquisite moral sensibilities. If that recogition comes in the form of public outrage, so much the better, because theirs is a dead faith that mistakes its merest act of petty intolerance for the imitation of Christ. What American fundamentalism lacks in living, active morality, it makes up for with gratuitous acts of ugly, pietistic snobbery that are calculated to disgust and alienate people of good will. The same transgressive thrill that the secular Right gets from arguing in favor of scientific racism, the Religious Right gets from insisting on the right of "ethical" doctors to cast stones instead of healing wounds. It's soulless, dead-hearted busywork for the terminally childish and vain.


roger said...

i think the michigan statute allows docs and health workers to refuse service to anyone on moral. ethical, or religious grounds. wow

Phila said...


I think it does, as written, but there's a neat sleight-of-hand there. There are strict federal restrictions on pretty much every other type of discrimination, which make it very unlikely it'd be used against anyone but homosexuals.

That's how I understand it, at least.