In my part of the world, the most commented on new story at the moment is that a bigoted, moralistic, judgemental doctor has refused to prescribe the contraceptive pill for a young engaged woman, and she is making sure the media knows his name.
Blenheim woman Melissa Pont thought her doctor was “joking” when he refused to give the contraceptive pill.
Pont, 23, had recently moved to Blenheim with her fiance, Callum Alexander, and went to see Dr Joseph Lee at the Wairau Community Clinic to renew her prescription of the contraceptive pill.
“I went in and all I needed was a repeat of the pill and he said he would not give me a prescription because he was ‘pro-life’,” Pont told The Press today.
“I thought he was joking. It didn’t seem real that he would not give it to me. I started getting quite annoyed, especially as I had just waited an hour in reception.”
Pont said Lee questioned her on why she would not have children. “I said I’d just bought a house and was not ready to have children but that I was in a committed relationship. It’s my choice when to have children. He looked disgusted by my response.”
Pont had visited another doctor for her prescription, but said she was “concerned” that Lee would be acting in this way.
I don’t know everything Dr Lee said to his patient or how he acted towards her and spoke to her. The truth is that we only have one side of the story from a person who is clearly offended by the stance that Dr Lee took towards her. It’s important to bear in mind that the principle of “we don’t have all the facts, we only have one side of the story so we shouldn’t rush to judgement about how pleasant / unpleasant he was” is a principle that should afford conservatives the same protection from unwarranted speculation and/or condemnation that it ought to afford anybody else. We should therefore overlook the emotive descriptions of Dr Lee’s “disgusted” facial expressions and the manner in which he allegedly addressed the complainant. It is evident that she is unhappy with him and wants to shame him. We weren’t there, so we should presume to know only the facts: A patient requested that a Doctor prescribe a contraceptive pill for her. He declined, and he is being publicly named and shamed for it as though he is in the wrong and she in the right.
The issue is an important one and is bigger than this one encounter between doctor and patient – and it’s bigger than the issue of birth control. The question is whether or not a doctor should be compelled to do what they think is morally wrong, and whether or not it’s appropriate or even acceptable to morally condemn a doctor who refuses to provide a medication or perform a procedure on conscientious grounds.
Firstly, you might be tempted to think that if it’s legal then the question of morality should never arise. The doctor is required to do what the patient wants within the law and that is that. But this is obviously false. Doctors are routinely required to make judgement calls based on a whole range of factors beyond what is permitted by law. There are various codes of conduct to which they must adhere that are not legal requirements, and they are always required to act in a manner that they consider to be ethical. It would be a sorry state of affairs if we took the view that the law could supplant a person’s conscience so that everything that was legal was also moral. If this were the case, the very concept of disobeying an unjust law would make no sense.
If Dr Lee takes a standard Catholic view of birth control, he does not view it as being on par with murder – not by a long shot. But suppose for a moment that he did. Are we really willing to say that a person should be compelled to do that which they consider to be tantamount to murder? That it’s acceptable to cultivate a mindset that if we are told by the government to carry out murder, we should simply comply? Clearly not, so we should reject outright the view that we are all morally justified in doing (or worse, required to do) whatever the law requires or permits.
Secondly, you might be tempted to say that actually Dr Lee isn’t required to prescribe birth control, because he’s not required to prescribe anything. He chose to be a doctor, and he can simply find a new job if he doesn’t want to do what his patient asks for. This too is an unacceptable stance to take. It implies that doctors – all those who choose to be doctors – are the agents of the government whose conscience must agree with the law. In a world where doctors were legally required to euthanize the newborn children of an unwanted subsection of the population, any who refused, a proponent of this view would say, are just in the wrong profession. They should quit, and allow doctors who are prepared to do their job to get on with it.
There is a good reason why neither the law nor medical standards of practice endorse either of these two options. Any free society must make provision for conscientious objections on at least some level. The idea that what you believe about this thing called “ethics” aka “morality” is something you think about when you’re reading, blogging or going to church, but they’re a curiosity that you must set aside when you return to the real world and go to work, simply fails to grasp what morality is all about. It’s incredible that so many are actually prepared to utter glib comments like “As a doctor you really have to leave your personal beliefs at the door and treat each patient without prejudice.” This is what one of the commenters on this story had to say, and it’s a sad indictment on the skill of moral thinking that exists among those who digest news stories. On the one hand we crusade for ethical business practice: We demand that big corporations like Nike, Apple and a host of cosmetics companies change the way that they do business because we judge that what they are doing is fundamentally immoral; they should adopt standards that we think are morally right, and yet on the other we (some of us at least) decry those medical practitioners who dare to bring their moral beliefs to bear on the services that they provide. They should shut up and do what we think is right. Unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways. Make up your mind what sort of society you want to live in.
Thirdly, you might be tempted to say that you grant all of the above, but that what’s wrong with Dr Lee’s actions – and why doctors should not be permitted to refuse to provide the prescription or procedure requested – is that he is interfering with a woman’s choice. One of the commenters on the news story summed up the view of many on this by dismissing the thoughts of somebody who took Dr lee’s side of the story by saying “Not your uterus, not your choice.” The doctor doesn’t have to take the pill (!), but who is he to tell a woman that she can’t? However, it is precisely scenarios like this one that show that the issue is not simply a matter of a woman’s choice. If it was purely a matter of her choice, then there would be no possibility of complaint about what this man is willing to do. The fact is, this complaint is not about women choosing, but about a doctor choosing. Nobody has told this woman what she can and cannot do. It is the other way around: She (along with those who whose comments fill the comments section on news stories) is telling the doctor what he should and should not do. Another person’s private choice surely cannot compel me to take part in it. Clearly this is not a woman’s private choice about how she conducts her own affairs and uses her own body (setting aside for now concerns over the possible destruction of embryos). This is a woman’s demand on how a doctor ought to conduct his affairs. If our concern is to preserve the right to choose, then very clearly the doctor is the one to whose side we should be rallying.
In the end, I think the only real avenue for condemnation, or at least feisty disagreement, is about whether or not the doctor’s stance on birth control is the right one to take. Maybe you deny that the contraceptive pill (very) occasionally destroys an embryo. To the best of my knowledge, you’d be wrong, but fine, have that dispute if you like. Or maybe that’s not the real issue for you. Maybe you think that the objection to contraceptives in general is mistaken. OK, make that case (I may even agree with some of what you say). But don’t try to strong-arm doctors into accepting your beliefs about such matters by shaming them and implying that they have some sort of duty to shut up, stop thinking and obey you. Defend your stance on a contentious issue. Have backbone to do that, rather than try to get your way on the issue by bullying people into feeling bad for not fulfilling your desires.