Health chief must protect doctors against changing medical culture

Health chief must protect doctors against changing medical culture
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The new Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary, Alex Azar, is speaking to the members of the Health Subcommittee on Thursday, who are eager to learn from him how he plans to use his position to positively impact millions of Americans.

Health care professionals across the country, especially concerned physicians like me, are hoping he will tell the members that he is planning to support the new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the HHS Office for Civil Rights. This division was formed to defend the conscience rights of doctors and nurses and our ability to exercise sound medical judgment while caring for our patients.

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Increasingly, staying true to our vocation to preserve our patients’ health and prolong their lives has made us afraid of retaliation and losing our jobs. This has come about due to cultural shifts over the last decades regarding very basic understandings of health and human flourishing.

Ideologues have elevated abortion from a legal but morally problematic elective procedure to the very centerpiece of “women’s health.” Suicide was once considered the ultimate cry of despair, but is now a “right” and a choice that patients are encouraged to consider when they start to see themselves as a burden. Gender expression has become an indispensable good, while the default treatment for gender dysphoria has become possibly dangerous, long-term hormonal interventions and the amputation of healthy organs.

These cultural shifts are causing physicians and nurses to act in ways that fly in the face of our calling. While abortion is legal, our knowledge of embryology makes clear that the procedure stops human life, an abhorrence to many of us who have dedicated our lives to preserving it. Promoting abortion as a liberating vehicle for women is not convincing to many physicians who know that roughly half of those nascent human lives are female and that sex-selective abortion is a real and growing trend. Arguing that abortion stops lives that are not worth living simply does not ring true for the doctors and nurses who admire and care for exceptional patients who are living lives that others would disdain.

Assisted suicide, legal in several states now, is being promoted everywhere else by the right-to-die lobby and its deep pockets. Health care providers are worried about this trend, knowing that patients are exceedingly vulnerable when sick and nearing the end of their lives. This vulnerability can make their “right” to die seem a positive duty when they feel they are burdening their families. Doctors and nurses have been shocked watching cash-strapped states offer cheap suicide pills to cancer patients who are begging instead for another round of life-prolonging chemotherapy.

Many of us do not wish to participate in the suicide culture because of how it damages the indispensable trust that underlies patient-doctor relationships. If the state believes it has an imperative duty to assist and promote suicide, surely the state can do so without us, or at least without those who love their profession too much to wreck it by treating despair with a prescription for death.

Today’s transgender ideology offers only one treatment for patients suffering from gender dysphoria – drastic hormonal and surgical intervention. Many physicians are loath to amputate healthy organs and genitals, understanding that the psycho-social suffering of gender dysphoric people continues long after the “treatment” with persistent sky-high rates of suicide attempts. Interfering with the normal and healthy puberty of a dysphoric boy or girl is a dangerous experiment; we simply do not know all the long-term side effects of such interventions.

Many doctors like me have made the decision to not take part in abortions, suicides, or transition surgeries and interventions. We pay the price through fear of retaliation and fear of losing our jobs. But there are plenty of doctors who do not feel morally troubled by ending a life or disrupting the normal puberty of a child. That work should be left to them; the rest of us should not be forced to participate.

The new division within the HHS is needed to enforce laws that already exist. Those laws allow health care providers to do what is best for our patients, even when larger cultural fads and trends demand we act in ways that violate our vocation to heal people instead of hurt them.

We are heartened by the new spirit at HHS that supports sound science and life-preserving medicine. Today’s fads and trends will pass, but a medical culture grounded in the highest and noblest principles cannot be allowed to fade.

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is policy advisor to The Catholic Association.