A few years ago, I designed an ethics workshop to help people explore how they would make difficult health care related decisions. Usually when people attend this workshop, they are chomping at the bit to get to the interesting bioethics stuff: feeding tubes, test tube babies, human-animal hybrids, you name it. So you can imagine their frustration when I start every session by forcing participants to sit through a half-hour discussion on the importance of conscience. Luckily for them I leave my Summa Theologica at home, but that doesn’t mean I let them avoid philosophizing altogether.
I always begin a faith-based discussion on conscience with a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1776: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”
I love this quote because, in addition to giving me chills, it reminds us that our conscience is a place of peace, not a place of guilt. We have this amazing sanctuary (our own personal “fortress of solitude” for any Superman fans out there) where we can go to be truly ourselves before our God. It recharges us, reminds us of our deepest calling, points us in the right direction, and sends us out into the world.
However, I can’t help but notice that not everyone shares this positive understanding of conscience, as more and more often we hear the jarring command to “leave your conscience and your personal beliefs at home.” Even if it were possible to bury one’s conscience or to prevent it from influencing our actions, this phrase always makes me wonder: has anyone thought about what it would be like to be surrounded by people who have purposely deadened their sense of morality?
Unfortunately, we may not be left wondering about what this world would look like for long. Calls to leave one’s conscience at home are now working their way into policies, and it seems that once again the Canadian health care system has become the focus of debate.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan (CPSS) released a draft policy at the end of January that, if implemented, would require physicians to violate the dictates of their own consciences. If a patient demands a “legally permissible and publicly funded health service” that his or her physician does not want to provide, the physician must refer the patient to someone who will provide it. If a referral is not possible, the physician must provide the service himself or herself, even if the physician believes the treatment will cause harm.
This may seem innocuous at first. Perhaps there are even some Prairie Messenger readers who are thinking: “Good. I don’t want my doctor preventing me from accessing what I want when I want it because of his or her personal beliefs.” However, I believe this attitude fails to see the larger picture. It fails to ask the question: Do you really want to be treated by a doctor who is willing to harm you?
Telling people that they need to keep their personal moral opinions to themselves may be convenient at first, but it sets the stage for a world in which individuals become apathetic, disengaged from their work, and ready to commit actions they would normally consider morally unacceptable. As history has shown us repeatedly, this is particularly dangerous in the context of medicine where health care professionals have the capacity to inflict great harm on those in their care.
The only obvious solution to this problem is to limit the practice of medicine to those who agree that every “legally permissible and publicly funded health service” is beneficial. However, demanding such a consensus would severely limit the number of Canadians who could become physicians and prevent many citizens from accessing care from a physician who shares their values and treatment goals.
The CPSS has begun a consultation on their draft policy that is open to physicians and the public until March 6, 2015. Please take the time to educate yourself on this subject by visiting the Christian Medical and Dental Society at cmdscanada.org and make your voice heard by contacting the CPSS.
There are many reasons to be concerned with this policy, but my main reason for concern is actually quite selfish. I do not want to be treated by a physician who would endorse a course of action that he or she believes is harmful. I deserve better than that. All Canadians deserve better than that.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.