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Conscientious Objection Accommodation in Healthcare – Clashing Perspectives

24 Mar, 17 | by bearp

by Brian D. Earp / (@briandavidearp)

On behalf of the Journal of Medical Ethics, I would like to draw your attention to the current issue, now available online, which is almost entirely dedicated to the vexing question of conscientious objection in healthcare. When, if ever, should a healthcare provider’s personal conviction about the wrongness of some intervention (be it abortion, euthanasia, or whatever) be accommodated?

In a paper that has already attracted much attention, Ricardo Smalling and Udo Schuklenk argue that medical professionals have no moral claim to conscientious objection accommodation in liberal democracies.

In part, they base their argument on their judgment that “the typical conscientious objector does not object to unreasonable, controversial professional services—involving torture, for instance—but to the provision of professional services that are both uncontroversially legal and that patients are entitled to receive” (emphasis added).

It seems clear that a lot hinges on what is meant by “unreasonable” there–and on who should get to decide what falls under that label. One answer to this question might be, “society should get to decide, through the enactment of laws, which ideally express the view of the majority of people as to what is reasonable or unreasonable in medical and other contexts.”

“Therefore,” this answer continues, “if a doctor thinks that some legally allowed service X is immoral, then she should rally her fellow citizens to lobby their representatives to change the relevant law; but she should not be excused from providing the service, if by law the patient is entitled to receive it.”

“And if she really doesn’t want to do X,” the answer concludes, “she can always leave the profession and take up some other line of work.”

This is a rough summary of what Smalling and Schuklenk do in fact say. I’d be curious to hear what people think. My hunch is that a person’s attitude toward the answer (i.e., whether they see it as good and convincing or not) will depend in large part on what they substitute for “X” in their minds when thinking about conscientious objection.


Professional Codes and Diagnosis at a Distance

6 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

This is the second part of my response to Trish Greenhalgh’s post on the propriety of medics, psychiatrists in particular, offering diagnoses of Donald Trump’s mental health.  In the last post, I concentrated on some of the problems associated with making such a diagnosis (or, on reflection, what might be better called a “quasi-diagnosis”).  In this, I’m going to concentrate on the professional regulation aspect.

Greenhalgh notes that, as a UK medic, she is bound by the GMC’s Duties of a Doctor guidance,

which – to my surprise – does not explicitly cover the question of a doctor’s duty towards a public figure who is not his or her patient.


My reading of the GMC guidance is that in extreme circumstances, even acknowledging the expectation of how doctors should normally behave, it may occasionally be justified to raise concerns about a public figure (for example, when the individual is relentlessly pursuing a course of action that places many lives at risk). Expressing clinical concern in such circumstances seems to involve a comparable ethical trade-off to the public interest disclosure advice (Duties of a Doctor paragraphs 53-56) that breach of patient confidentiality may be justified in order “to prevent a serious risk of harm to others.”

Well, to be honest, it’s not that much of a surprise to me that the GMC guidelines doesn’t stretch to public figures – but that’s a minor point.

The more interesting thing for me is what the relationship is between the practitioner and the GMC.  Greenhalgh ends her post by saying that she “wrote this blog to promote further debate on the topic and invite the GMC to clarify its position on it”.  But why should the GMC’s position be all that important?

OK: I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here.  Stick with me. more…

Diagnosing Trump

5 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

It doesn’t take too much time on the internet to find people talking with some measure of incredulity about Donald Trump.  Some of this talk takes the tone of horrified fascination; some of it is mocking (and is accompanied by correspondingly mocking images); and some people are wondering aloud about his mental health.  In this last category, there’s a couple of sub-categories: sometimes, people are not really talking in earnest; sometimes, though, they are.  What if the forty-fifth President of the United States of America has some kind of mental illness, or some kind of personality disorder?  What if this affects his ability to make decisions, or increases the chance that he’ll make irrational, impulsive, and potentially dangerous decisions?

This does raise questions about the proper conduct of the medical profession – particularly, the psychiatric profession.  Would it be permissible for a professional to speak publicly about the putative mental health of the current holder of the most important political office in the world?  Or would such action simply be speculation, and unhelpful, and generally infra dig?  More particularly, while the plebs might say all kinds of things about Trump, is there something special about speaking, if not exactly ex cathedra, then at least with the authority of someone who has working knowledge of cathedrae and what it’s like to sit on one?

As far as the American Psychiatric Association is concerned, the answer is fairly clear.  §7.3 of its Code of Ethics, which you can get here, says that

[o]n occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.

This rule is nicknamed the “Goldwater Rule”, after Barry Goldwater, the Senator who sued successfully for damages after a magazine polled psychiatrists on the question of whether or not he was fit to be President.  Following the rule would appear to rule out making any statement about whether a President has a mental illness, a personality disorder, or anything else that might appear within the pages of the DSM.

Over on the BMJ‘s blog, Trish Greenhalgh has been wondering about what a doctor may or may not do in cases like this:

I have retweeted cartoons that mock Trump, because I view satire and parody as legitimate weapons in the effort to call our leaders to account.

But as a doctor, should I go further? Should I point out the formal diagnostic criteria for a particular mental illness, cognitive condition, or particular personality disorder and select relevant examples from material available in the public domain to assess whether he appears to meet those criteria?

Her post is long, but it does generate an answer:

I believe that on rare occasions it may be ethically justified to offer clinically-informed speculation, so long as any such statement is clearly flagged as such. […] I believe that there is no absolute bar to a doctor suggesting that in his or her clinical opinion, it would be in the public interest for a particular public figure to undergo “occupational health” checks to assess their fitness to hold a particular office.

Her phrasing is such as to leave no bet unhedged – she’s careful not to say that she’s talking about anyone in particular; but, beneath that, the message is clear: it might be justifiable to depart from the Goldwater Rule to some extent in certain hypothetical circumstances.

My post in response will also be long – in fact, it’s going to spread out over two posts.  I think she’s plausibly correct; but the way she gets there is not persuasive.


Chappell on Midwives and Regulation

2 Feb, 17 | by Iain Brassington

Richard Yetter Chappell has drawn my attention to this – a blog post in which he bemoans the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s rules about indemnity insurance, and the effects that they’ll have on independent midwives.  (I’d never heard of independent midwives – but an IM – according to Independent Midwives UK – is “a fully qualified midwife who has chosen to work outside the NHS in a self-employed capacity”.)  In essence, what’s happened is that the NMC has ruled that the indemnity cover used by some IMs – around 80, nationwide, according to some reports – is inadequate; these 80 IMs (out of 41000!) are therefore barred from working.

I’ve got to admit that this seems like a bit of a storm in a teacup to me.  For sure, there may have been infelicities about the way that the NMC handled its decision.  That may well be unfortunate, but it may not be all that much to get excited about.  However, Chappell makes two particularly striking points.  The first is his opening claim, in which he refers to this as “a new low for harmful government over-regulation”.  Well, it’s not really government overregulation, is it?  It’s the NMC.  Governing bodies are not government.  And whether it’s overregulation at all is a moot point: we need more information about what the standard is by which we should assess any regulation.  That leads us to the second striking thing that Chappell says, to which I’ll return in a moment.  Whether it’s harmful is also a moot point.  I mean, it may be true – as he points out – that the decision will have an undesirable impact on the relationship between some women and their chosen midwife.  But that won’t tell us anything about whether the policy is desirable all told.  It’s certainly not enough to warrant calling it “unethical” – and to dub something unethical is not a moral argument.

The second striking thing is this: more…

Professionalism, or Prying?

3 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington

“Professionalism” is a funny thing.  About this time last year, I was struggling to get a new course written for the coming semester; it was on professional ethics for lawyers.  A colleague made a comment along the lines that I must be spending a lot of time looking at the professional codes; I replied that I’d be spending almost none doing that; she looked baffled and wandered off, presumably convinced that I was joking.

I wasn’t joking.  I did look a little at the professional codes, but only as a jumping-off point.  My schtick was more like, “Here’s what the SRA says about client confidentiality; now let’s spend the remaining 98% of this lecture looking at why it might say that, and whether it ought to say something different”.

Yet, as I wrote the lectures, professionalism – not professional codes, but professionalism – did keep cropping up.  After all, if you’re going to talk about lawyers’ ethics, or doctors’ ethics, or engineers’ ethics, the implication has to be that there’s something quite specific that applies to each of those professions, otherwise it just collapses into… well, ethics; and it might be that there is a clear way to define who belongs to the profession, and a clear hierarchy, and that it is proper (or, at least, it may be proper) that there is some sort of pressure exerted by that hierarchy that shapes behaviour in a way that neither the law nor standard social norms do.  There are some things that are regulated by professional ethics that aren’t regulated by bog-standard ethics.  To return to the lawyers’ example, there might be certain things that are acceptable or even required from a lawyer that wouldn’t be in other cases, and other things that are unacceptable that are trivial outside the profession; and the same might apply to medics.  (In passing, I think that that might be one of the fault lines in academic medical ethics: those of us that come from a philosophical background understand “ethics” to mean one thing, and those of us who come from a medical or, in at least some cases, a social science background understand it to mean another.  We normally rub along fine, but sometimes we are talking at cross-purposes.)

A range of problems arises from that, though.  For example, though codes of ethics might attempt to codify what it is that’s demanded by professionals, they’re often rather vague, or presuppose a heck of a lot that’s actually rather important.  That can lead to situations in which it’s impossible to tell what’s required on the ground.  “Maintaining the reputation of the profession” is a concern of some of the professional codes I’ve seen, though quite what that means is anyone’s guess, since it might collapse to “doing whatever keeps the public on side, no matter how senseless”; and while that might maintain esteem in one sense, it does so only by undermining the concept of professional integrity.

A second problem comes from the need to know what things are properly within the “professional” remit, and what professional bodies have any business talking about.  The difficulty here is that “professionalism” implies living a kind of life; being a professional involves being a certain kind of person.  One doesn’t stop being a professional when the end-of-shift klaxon goes.  And yet there’re certain things that do have nothing to do with professional regulation: whether or not to be teetotal is not a professional matter, and a professional body that tried to involve itself in such decisions would be stepping over the line.  Still, where the line should be drawn may not be obvious.

All of this brings me to this blog post over on the BMJ blog, in which Niro Kumar considers doctors and dating apps. more…


26 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Jumping to the defence of pharmaceutical companies over their pricing policies isn’t fashionable – and a lot of the time, it’s not going to end prettily.  But it’s perfectly coherent to think that the profit motive is one of the motors of innovation, and that it’s part of the quid pro quo for spending money on drugs that may do nothing; in fine, that the profit motive may actually be a necessary part of getting the good stuff we want.  To an economist, the phrase “normal profit” means the minimum profit necessary to keep a firm going – where average revenue equals average total cost.  But if that was all that was on offer, there’d be no incentive to enter a market in the first place: if you’re (on average) in the same place as you were before entering the market, why bother?  So it’s reasonable to think that there ought to be some level of supernormal profits.  They help ensure we get a world that’s better tomorrow than it was yesterday.

On this account, the problem is not with making a supernormal profit – oh, all right then: what in everyday English we’d simply call a profit – but with gouging and/ or profiteering.  The question that needs to be addressed is one of what level of profit, and what kind of return on investment, is reasonable.  In some sectors of the economy, it may be quite high.  For example, if I can manufacture a luxury good for which people are willing to pay through the nose, and make a stonking great profit from it… well, all hail me.  In other sectors, this will not be the case.

The determinants of the level of acceptability will depend on all kinds of factor.  It’s a complicated question, and it may defy satisfactory answers from time to time.  All the same: one doesn’t have to be able to say that or why x is good in order to be able to say that y stinks.  The story about EpiPen pricing that’s emerged over the last week or so is one such case.

Here’s the story: EpiPens deliver a dose of adrenaline, and are therefore very useful in cases of allergic reaction.  Adrenaline is not expensive, but delivering it via a syringe is cumbersome; EpiPens make it much simpler.  Mylan Pharmaceuticals obtained the rights to the device in 2007; since then, the price has risen by somewhere between 400 and 500% in the US (different sources offer different amounts; but a pack of two EpiPens costs about $415 in the US, and about $85 in France).  That’s bad enough on the face of it, though Mylan CEO Heather Bresch does apparently have a defence, as Fortune explains: more…

Free Labour and Quiet Doubts

1 Aug, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Those of us on the academic side of things will almost certainly recognise the situation: you’re sitting in your school’s Teaching & Learning committee, or a staff/student committee meeting, or something like that, and you hear the complaint from students that they should get more contact time.  Academics should spend more time teaching rather than simply doing their own research.  After all, they’re paying however-many thousand pounds for their education.

And you’ll’ve heard the standard rebuttals – and maybe even trotted them out yourself: that course fees cover not just teaching costs, but libraries, labs, buildings and so on; that university learning isn’t about hours in a classroom; that teaching and research are intertwined; that students benefit from being taught by the people who’re writing the papers they’re reading.  But I wonder if these standard responses miss something important.

Back in April, I was getting companionably smashed with some of my final-year students, and we were talking about what they were going to do when they’d graduated, and about possible careers.  One or two were interested in academia, and so a part of the conversation concerned what life’s like from my side of the fence.  Predictably, pay was one thing that interested them.  I mentioned that I’d made about £80 in total from the books I’ve written, spread over 10 years.
“And what do you get paid for a paper?”
I held back my bitter laughter, and explained how much you get paid for papers, and how much you get for peer-reviewing, and all the rest of it.  The students had had no idea that this stuff was expected of us, but not remunerated.  Why would they?  Indeed, isn’t it insane that we’re not paid?

I think that one gets an insight here into students’ complaints about academics’ priorities being wrong.  If they think that we get paid for publishing papers, then of course they’re going to think that we have an incentive to resist extra contact hours – and everything we tell them about extra contact hours being at best academically unnecessary, and likely as not counterproductive, will sound like so much bad faith.  After all, of course we’d tell them that a course only needs 30 hours of lectures rather than 60 if we could be earning extra money with those spare 30 hours.

What prompts all this is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s from 2012, but it’s started popping up in my social media timelines this morning, and Carl posted it on Fear and Loathing in Bioethics last night.  It makes a proposal: more…

Posted without Comment…

6 Apr, 16 | by Iain Brassington

… except to say that (a) if I could have my time again, I’d retrain as a medic and go to work in one of the developed world’s most dysfunctional healthcare systems:


(click for bigger)

and (b) I’d be grateful that I’m not a woman:


(click for bigger)


Why Brits? Why India?

3 Apr, 16 | by Iain Brassington

Julie Bindel had a piece in The Guardian the other day about India’s surrogate mothers.  It makes for pretty grim reading.  Even if the surrogates are paid, and are paid more than they might otherwise have earned, there’s still a range of problems that the piece makes clear.

For one thing, the background of the surrogates is an important factor.  Bindel writes that

[s]urrogates are paid about £4,500 to rent their wombs at this particular clinic, a huge amount in a country where, in 2012, average monthly earnings stood at $215.

It’s tempting, at first glance, to look at the opportunity to be a surrogate as a good thing in this context: these women are earning, by comparative standards, good money.  But, of course, you have to keep in mind that the standard is comparative.  If your choice is between doing something you wouldn’t otherwise do and penury, doing the thing you wouldn’t otherwise do looks like the better option.  But “better option” doesn’t imply “good option”.  So there’s more to be said there; more questions to be asked.  Choosing x over y because y is more awful doesn’t mean that x isn’t.  It might be a good thing; but it might not be.  There might be economic – structural – coercion.  Choosing to become a surrogate might be a symptom of there being no better alternative.

A related question is this: are the women really making a free choice in offering their reproductive labour even assuming that the terms are economically just?  Possibly not:

I have heard several stories of women being forced or coerced into surrogacy by husbands or even pimps, and ask Mehta if she is aware of this happening.  “Without the husbands’ [of the surrogates] consent we don’t do surrogacy.”

Note (a) the non-denial, and (b) the tacit acceptance that it’s the husband’s decision anyway.  That’s not good.

(In a wholly different context, I’ve recently been reading David Luban’s Lawyers and Justice, and – in a discussion about lawyers cross-examining complainants in rape cases, he makes this point:

([H]ere we have two people who are confronted by powerful institutions from which protection is needed.  The defendant is confronted by the state [that is: in any criminal trial, the defendant does need protection from the power of the state – IB], but the victim is confronted by the millennia-long cultural tradition of patriarchy, which makes the cliché that the victim is on trial true.  From the point of view of classical liberalism, according to which the significant enemy is the state, this cannot matter. But from the point of view of the progressive correction of classical liberalism, any powerful social institution is a threat, including diffuse yet tangible institutions such as patriarchy. (p 151)

(The sentiment would seem to apply here.  A view of human agency that sees liberty as being mainly or only about avoiding state interference is likely to miss all kinds of much more subtle, insidious pressures that are liberty-limiting.  Economic factors are such pressures.  The idea of the wife as property is another.)

I do wonder if readers of this blog might help out with answering one more question, though. more…

Thumbs Up for Privacy

30 Mar, 16 | by Iain Brassington

“Hey, Iain,” says Fran, a Manchester alumna, “What do you make of this?”  I won’t bother rehearsing the whole scenario described in the post, but the dilemma it describes – set out by one Simon Carley – is fairly easily summarised: you work in A&E; a patient is rolled in who’s unconscious; there’s no ID, no medic alert bracelet – in short, nothing to show who the patient is or what their medical history is; but the patient does have an iPhone that uses thumbprints as a security feature.  And it might be that there’s important information that’d be accessible by using the unconscious patient’s thumb to get at it – even if it’s only a family member who might be able to shed some light on the patient’s medical history.

It’s a potentially life-or-death call.  Would it be permissible to hold the phone to the patient’s thumb?

For those who think that privacy is a side-constraint – that is, a moral consideration that should not be violated – the answer will be obvious, and they’ll probably stop reading around about… NOW.  After all, if you’re committed to that kind of view, it’s entirely possible that the question itself won’t make a great deal of sense (tantamount to “Is it OK to do this thing that is plainly not OK?”), or at least not be worth asking.  But I don’t think that privacy is a side-constraint; I’m increasingly of the opinion that privacy is a bit of an iffy concept across the board, for reasons that needn’t detain us here, but that might be implied by at least some of what follows.  In short, I think that privacy is worth taking seriously as a consideration, but it’s almost certainly not trumps.  At the very least, that’s how I shall handle it here.  (Note here that the problem is one of privacy, not – as the OP has it – confidentiality; it’s a question about how to get information, rather than one of what you can do with information volunteered.  A minor quibble, perhaps, but one worth making.)  Even if I’m wrong about privacy in general, the question still seems to be worth asking, if only to confirm that and why it should not be violated. more…

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