World medical body pushes back on conscience fight

  • February 20, 2018

The international society of Catholic doctors is using Canada as an example of what can go wrong when doctors are forced to refer for abortion.

The World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations is drawing on Canada’s experience to counter proposals before the World Medical Association to adopt forced referrals and signal ethical acceptance for euthanasia.

“Based on the Canadian experience, acceptance of the ethical neutrality of medically-assisted death has resulted in almost immediate challenges for physicians who are unable to refer because of moral, religious or ethical concerns,” federation president Dr. John Lee writes in a Feb. 8 letter the World Medical Association.

“It is a serious problem, with physicians put in the impossible position of having to choose between their conscience and being allowed to continue to care for their patients.”

The global Catholic medical group, known by its French acronym as FIAMC (Fédération Internationale des Associations de Médecins Catholiques), finds itself fighting World Medical Association proposals on two fronts. 

First is a rewording of the global body’s 2006 ethical standards for abortion that erases the distinction between therapeutic and elective abortions, drops any reference to an unborn child and deletes a sentence that reads, “The WMA requires the physician to maintain respect for human life.”

The proposed WMA forced referral policy will bring the association’s  standards in line with International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics policy. 

On euthanasia, the proposed ethical guidelines will withdraw the WMA’s opposition to euthanasia and replace it with a statement that the “WMA does not condemn physicians who follow their own conscience in deciding whether or not to participate in these activities, within the bounds of the legislation, in those jurisdictions where euthanasia and/or physician assisted dying are legalized.”

“Essentially, there is no objective place to draw the line,” writes Lee.

Canadian Catholic and Evangelical doctors have drawn attention to the proposals that are working their way through WMA committees.

“We flagged that with all of our sister organizations around the world,” said Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada executive director Deacon Larry Worthen. “There are 80 of them. We’re glad to hear they’re moving on that.”

The WMA proposals have caught the eye of American doctors worried about erosion of their conscience rights.

“Forcing doctors to do things that are against their conscience rights is not the right direction to go as far as the practice of medicine in the future,” said Dr. Lester A. Ruppersberger, immediate past president of the Philadelphia-based Catholic Medical Association.

The American Catholic Medical Association has joined with the American Association of Pro-Life OB-GYNs, the American College of Pediatricians, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons and the Christian Medical and Dental Society of the United States to form a block of 25,000 physicians opposed to the WMA proposals.

Ruppersberger admits that Catholic doctors have been absent from ethics and standards discussions in regulatory bodies and medical schools.

“One of the reasons why the Catholic Medical Association exists is because we don’t want to join people who have missions and visions and statements in opposition to what we believe to be ethical and morally correct and a good way to practise medicine,” he told The Catholic Register.

While American doctors enjoy specific, legislated protections of their conscience rights, the policies of major medical associations in the U.S., particularly of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, are pushing moral objections to surgical and chemical abortion into the margins, Ruppersberger said. Doctors who won’t refer for abortion are having trouble getting board certification from the ACOG, he said.

“It’s not exactly like the public is being denied access. We’re not trying to change the law on abortion. We’re not trying to change the laws that govern our licensing and our practice of medicine. We just want to be able to practice medicine according to the original oath of Hippocrates and choose to do what we think is best for the patients,” he said.

In Canada, the CMDS, the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies and their allies are trying to persuade the Canadian Medical Association to protect their conscience rights at the next WMA council meeting in Latvia April 26-28.

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