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The World Medical Association Subtly Eviscerates Conscience Rights

by | Jul 27, 2023

By Wesley J. Smith

The World Medical Association has published a revised “International Code of Medical Ethics” that is intended as “a canon of ethical principles for the members of the medical profession worldwide.” Most of it is fine. For example, the code states that “the physician must provide care with the utmost respect for human life and dignity, and for the autonomy and rights of the patient,” and that doctors are not to have sexual relations with their current patients.

But, problematically, the WMA has eviscerated medical conscience rights in a way that would compel doctors to engage in interventions and actions to which they are morally or religiously opposed. It doesn’t do this blatantly, but subtly. From the code (my emphasis):

29. This Code represents the physician’s ethical duties. However, on some issues there are profound moral dilemmas concerning which physicians and patients may hold deeply considered but conflicting conscientious beliefs.

The physician has an ethical obligation to minimise disruption to patient care. Physician conscientious objection to provision of any lawful medical interventions may only be exercised if the individual patient is not harmed or discriminated against and if the patient’s health is not endangered.

The physician must immediately and respectfully inform the patient of this objection and of the patient’s right to consult another qualified physician and provide sufficient information to enable the patient to initiate such a consultation in a timely manner.

Here’s the problem with the italicized bit. “Lawful medical interventions” includes human-life-taking actions such as abortion and euthanasia, as well as what many doctors consider to be harmful and/or permanently disfiguring gender-transition procedures (including on children) such as puberty-blocking, mastectomies for teenagers, facial reconstructions, and genital removal and refashioning.

Note that the code only permits doctors to refuse participation in such cases “if the patient is not discriminated against.” Well, we know how that works. Refusing legal abortion is castigated widely as “discrimination” in mainstream bioethics, by the medical establishment, in politically progressive legislation, and in progressive cultural and legal advocacy.

Also, as we have seen in U.S. abortion jurisprudence and international pro-abortion advocacy, “harm” or “endangered health” is often interpreted to include nonphysical consequences such as emotional distress, financial outcomes, and patient self-esteem.

Hence, the medical conscience provision of the WMA uses bland wording to eviscerate the right of doctors to refuse to participate in highly contentious and sometimes lethal actions that they find morally objectionable or that violate their religious beliefs.

The code also requires physicians to actively oppose laws and ethics rules — such as have been enacted in Florida and other states — that allow doctors to refuse to participate in interventions that violate their consciences (emphasis added):

39. The physician should follow, protect, and promote the ethical principles of this Code. The physician should help prevent national or international ethical, legal, organizational, or regulatory requirements that undermine any of the duties set forth in this Code.

The issue of medical conscience is now an international controversy. If the WMA Code becomes enforceable or is adopted into law, it will drive pro-life and many religious or traditional Hippocratic Oath–believing medical practitioners out of their profession around the world. Indeed, I suspect that is the point.

Editor’s note. Wesley’s great columns appear at National Review Online and are reposted with permission.

Categories: Conscience Rights