Moral beliefs may affect doctors’ care for patients

By Ashley Cook
March 15, 2007

Emily Buerger

A nationwide survey of 1,144 doctors found that 14 percent of physicans feel they are not required to tell patients about medical options they oppose morally. These options include abortion and teen birth control. 29 percent believe they have no duty to refer patients elsewhere for treatment.

“Moral conflicts are inevitable in an imperfect world,” Timothy Lent, adjunct religious studies, said. “A person who is looking for a physician should find out what his or her world view is.”

The American Medical Association gives doctors the right to decline to give a treatment sought by an individual that is “incompatible with the physician’s personal, religious or moral beliefs.” But the doctor should try to ensure the patient has “access to adequate” health care.

“Every person, whether religious or not, has a world view, that is basic views about right and wrong,” Lent said. “As I say in my classes, wherever human beings go they carry their baggage with them.”

The study found that 86 percent of those responding believe doctors should be required to present all treatment options, and 71 percent believe they must refer patients to another specialist for treatment. While more than half believe the physician had no such obligation.

“Any physician who has a personal objection to abortion has an obligation to follow their conscience and not in any way refer or suggest abortion as an alternative to pregnancy,” Mr. Patrick Stokely, adjunct religious studies, said. “If a physician were to do so, they would be directly cooperating in an act that the Catholic Church has determined to be intrinsically evil.”

The survey did not explore whether these physicians act on their beliefs, but the researchers calculated that tens of millions of Americans might be going to such doctors.

“If the patient were to themselves bring up abortion as an option, the physician would need to state that they do not do them and tell the patient that they would need to find another physician who would,” Stokely said.

The study, which was partially funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation of Plainsboro, N.J., found that doctors whom described themselves as very religious, particular Protestants and Catholics, were much less likely to feel obligated to tell patients about controversial treatments or refer them to other doctors. They were far more likely to tell patients if they had moral objections.

“The use of contraceptives as a way of regulating conception is likewise rejected by the Catholic Church,” Stokely said. “The reasoning is that it makes the act of sexual intercourse one that is not open and unitive.”

Overall, 52 percent of physicians said they oppose abortion, 42 percent oppose prescribing birth control to 14-to-16 year olds without parental approval, and 17 percent objected to sedating patients near death.

“In the doctor patient relationship, a doctor has the obligation to give all recommendations, even ones which he or she might feel morally opposed to,” Bill Monahan, a freshman English and communications major, said. “However, the doctor also has the duty to inform their patient of the possible consequences of treatments like abortion or birth control.

Dr. Jeffrey Ecker, chairman of the committee on ethics at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said that most physicians agreed patients deserve to be told about all appropriate medical options and referred to other doctors when needed.

“There is reason to be concerned about those that don’t do it,” Ecker said.

Ecker believes that it is possible many of the physicians in the survey who opposed such referrals may be practicing in specialties where they do not face those issues.

Ecker believes physicians must let patients explicitly know if they are opposed to particular services.

“The method recommended by the Catholic Church is that of Natural Family Planning, which when properly used, is as effective as the ‘pill’ without all of the other side effects on the woman’s body.” Stokely said.

Monahan said, “After all, where is the morality in lying to a patient of all possible treatments, even if the treatments might endanger their lives?”

Ashley Cook

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