Patient's Right or Religious Right?

A recent article in Salon tells the story of a mother of two who came dangerously close to death while the doctor who was supposed to be treating her simply refused to do so. Had it not been for a brave nurse who called another doctor in to perform an emergency surgery, she would not have survived. Mikka Kendall was denied life-saving medical treatment, and it was perfectly legal for her doctor to do so.

“Everyone knew the pregnancy wasn't viable, that it couldn't be viable given the amount of blood I was losing, but it still took hours for anyone at the hospital to do anything. The doctor on call didn't do abortions. At all. Ever. […]

A very kind nurse risked her job to call a doctor from the Reproductive Health Clinic who was not on call, and asked her to come in to save my life. […] By the time she arrived, I was in bad shape. The blood loss had rendered me nearly incoherent, but she still moved me to a different wing and got me the painkillers no one else had during the screaming hours I'd spent in the hospital. […]

Later I found out that the doctor had taken my husband aside as they brought me into surgery. She promised him she would do her best to save me, but she warned him there was a distinct possibility that she would fail. […]

My two kids at home almost lost their mother because someone decided that my life was worth less than that of a fetus that was going to die anyway.”

Patients can no longer fully rely on their medical providers to do their jobs properly due to “conscience clauses” at the state and federal level.  “Conscience clause” is a phrase that attempts to rebrand the shirking of a professional duty as a noble cause.  These laws make it legal to deny patients a wide range of procedures, not just abortions. New legislation, such as H.R. 1179, the Respect the Rights of Conscience Act of 2011, would allow health care plan issuers to decline coverage based on religious convictions.  Doctors, nurses, and other health care providers would not be required to fully inform a patient of possible options and would be allowed to refuse to acknowledge or provide treatments due to their own religious bias. These treatments are not by any means experimental or under review.  These are procedures that are considered by most in the medical community to be routine and necessary because of their obvious benefits.

We trust doctors with our most valuable possession, our health.  Our health becomes infinitely less respected when medical providers can legally infuse their personal values and beliefs into our care. In no other profession would this be acceptable. We would ask those who refuse to do their job to find other employment; we would not pass a law to protect them. There are standards for what to expect from doctors, nurses, and pharmacists.  These standards include fully treating a patient and not demanding that a patient adhere to their own particular belief system.

Abortion is a difficult choice, but it is nonetheless a legal option for a woman and, in the case of Mikka Kendall, a life-saving option. Ultimately, any medical procedure should be based on the patient’s morals and should not be taken away by a medical provider. At what point can we draw the line of when we allow a professional to opt out of their duties if we allow them to opt out at all?  Does it make any sense to have a pharmacist who refuses to fill particular prescriptions or a doctor who refuses to perform certain procedures? A patient should not have to “shop around” for a doctor or pharmacist who will perform their professional obligations. In some rural areas or in cases of emergency, searching for a doctor or pharmacist to provide certain treatments is not possible. As patients, we expect the right to equal medical care from all physicians regardless of bias, religious or otherwise. When we allow pharmacists and physicians to decide our values for us, we lose our right to choose and protect what we value.

You can learn more about Mikka Kendall’s story here.

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