You hear this claim a lot, especially whenever a news story is published about a pro-life nurse losing her job because she refuses to assist a doctor in killing an unborn child. It doesn’t help that so-called ethicists such as Julian Savulescu and Udo Schuklenk give this idea an air of respectability by arguing in academic publications that doctors and nurses should not be allowed to conscientiously object to performing abortions since that’s “discriminatory medicine”. This, of course, is nothing short of totalitarianism. A doctor who goes into medicine because he wants to help people, not kill them, should not be forced to kill anyone, be it an unborn child or a terminally ill patient.
Doctor George Delgado, in a podcast that he did with Nathan and me on our Pro-Life Thinking podcast, talked about medicine’s shift in metaphysical understanding, from an Aristotelian view of medicine to a Utilitarian view. In short, Aristotelianism is, at its heart, an essentialist philosophy. That is to say, it takes the idea that things have natures, or ways in which they should be, and then uses the unique knowledge and understanding doctors have of medicine to repair parts of the body which are not functioning as they ought to function. The fact there is such a thing as natures is what allows a doctor to recognize that hearts are the kinds of things that pump blood and because the doctor knows what the heart ought to do, the doctor is able to repair it, assuming it is currently medically possible, and put it back into right working order. This is why a doctor won’t just amputate a person’s healthy arm if they have a psychological condition such as body integrity dysmorphia. It is not in that person’s best interest to amputate a healthy limb. Instead, the person should receive psychological counseling to help restore his sense of identity regarding his healthy body. Utilitarianism is, at its heart, concerned with pleasure and pain. So instead of looking at what the proper functioning of the body is and only working to restore it, Utilitarianism would allow a doctor to act in such a way that will increase the person’s pleasure. So this is why a doctor will now amputate a perfectly healthy organ (e.g. a man’s penis), because he believes that changing a person’s sex to match a person’s gender identity is what will make the person happy, so he obliges. Of course, there is a growing body of evidence that shows trying to change a person’s sex won’t actually make that person happy (to say nothing of the fact that mutilating a person’s body doesn’t actually change his biological sex), but this discussion is beyond the scope of this article.
In fact, traditionally the Hippocratic oath, which includes sworn testimony by the doctor about how they will use their medical knowledge, used to include a line against performing an abortion or giving someone poison to kill them. Now not only does the medical field remove these lines, but some ethicists, such as the two mentioned at the top of this article, argue that a doctor is obligated to perform an abortion or euthanize someone who asks. This is madness, and it goes against the very purpose of medicine.
In response to news that a nurse in Vermont had her conscience rights violated when the hospital she works for forced her to participate in an abortion, Monica R. McLemore, a Ph.D., took to Vice to express her disappointment that a healthcare worker would have rights of her own, as if what the patient wants is always paramount while doctors and nurses lose their rights when they decide to enter the medical profession. Doctor McLemore’s article is called “If You Don’t Want to Provide Abortions, Don’t Go Into Healthcare“. Now it’s true that the patient’s autonomy, even if it’s not in their best interests, should at times be respected. If a patient doesn’t want to undergo a treatment he needs to prolong his life, even after the doctor explains why it’s necessary and the risks involved, the doctor should not force a patient to undergo the treatment. But patient autonomy is not absolute. If the patient wants the doctor to act in a way that is unethical, the doctor (and nurse) has a right to refuse. In the case of abortion, not only does every successful abortion take a human life, but it is also acting contrary to the purpose of medicine. Pregnancy is not a disease. When a woman gets pregnant, her body is acting exactly as it ought to. Infertility is a disease because something has gone wrong with the woman’s, or man’s, body that is preventing them from acting in the way that their bodies ought to behave. But pregnancy is acting in accordance with their bodies. Abortion is acting contrary to it and so is contrary to good medicine.
Now that I’ve basically explained the tensions between how medicine really is and how many modern doctors, nurses, and academics think it should be, I’ll look at some of the specific claims in Doctor McLemore’s article.
She talks about how nurses hold the “tension of opposites”, which seems to have a Jungian view of psychology undergirding it. Now I haven’t ready much in the field of psychology, so I’m not going to pontificate on it. However, this idea of the “tension of opposites” seems to be a kind of shallow understanding of how the world works. The article that Dr. McLemore linked to (which I’ll link to here) doesn’t seem to understand the correct situation. For example, it claims that the United States and the U.S.S.R. were two superpowers who were in a “tension of opposites”, but surely there were other countries which we could point to were our opposites, as well, such as Germany during World War II. And whoever wrote that article claims that the United States is a secular country, which is just false on the face of it. Most U.S. citizens are religious. We may have a “separation of church and state”, but not in the way many assume that we do. And the claim the idea “one religion is the sole proponent of truth” is what led to the Crusades is just historical ignorance. What led to the Crusades was the fact that Islamic jihadists had conquered Christian lands, and the Christians were trying to reclaim them. That was the purpose of the Crusades; it wasn’t a battle over which religion is the true one. In fact, the article states the following: “Jung never expected the majority of people to ‘get with his program.’ All he hoped for was ‘enough,’ what he called a ‘leading minority.'” So Dr. McLemore is using a concept which even the original proponent never expected a majority of people to utilize. So not only does this concept not make a whole lot of sense, at least as explained by the article that McLemore linked to, but even the original proponent didn’t expect most people to abide by it. In fact, McLemore isn’t even very clear on why this so-called “tension of opposites” matters in the grand scheme of things when it comes to providing abortion services.
Doctor McLemore states that the American Nurses Association code of ethics states, “clients have the right to make reproductive health decisions based on full information and without coercion”. This is all well and good, but abortion is not a reproductive health decision unless the pregnancy directly threatens her life. Abortion is not even permissible if the pregnancy is dangerous but not life-threatening, because there is a second life hanging in the balance here. A doctor is not permitted to kill one person to benefit another (e.g. to harvest an organ for someone who needs it). Of course, if the pregnancy is life-threatening a doctor may act in such a way that would result in the fetus’ death, but this act is permitted if the death of the fetus is merely foreseen but not intended, and if the act to save the mother’s life does not directly cause the death of the fetus. McLemore is right that doctors often perform abortions because of their moral beliefs — but moral beliefs can be wrong. The moral belief of Hitler that Jews and other undesirables should be extinguished to pave the way for an Aryan master race was wrong. The moral belief that white men can enslave black men to work on their plantation was also wrong. And the moral belief that a doctor can kill an unborn child because a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant is wrong. In addition, her claim that abortion is consistent with core nursing values is wrong, as well. Killing a defenseless child because the mother no longer wants the child around, for whatever reason, is undignified. It is undignified toward the child by refusing to recognize the child’s inherent right to life, it is undignified toward the mother because it treats her like a child who is not responsible for her actions, and it is undignified toward the doctor, because it makes him no better than an animal that has no moral qualms with killing another member of its own species.
This paragraph is pretty hilarious:
To be clear, I respect people’s desires not to do things that go against their moral or religious beliefs. I know that professional nursing in the United States was established in religiously affiliated institutions. However, people shouldn’t go into healthcare if they don’t want to provide healthcare.
Doctor McLemore says she respects people’s desires to not go against their moral or religious beliefs and that professional nursing was established in religiously affiliated institutions. How does she address these concerns? By repeating the title of her article. That’s it. No argument for why this nurse ought to perform abortions despite her deeply held moral and religious convictions, and despite the fact that it was Christianity, not atheism, that established the field of nursing. “Just believe me,” McLemore pleads. Perhaps instead, Doctor McLemore ought to consider that the Christian context in which nursing was established might know more about the dignity of human life than she does.
McLemore goes on to make a couple of highly misleading statements, that “there is clear support for abortion” and “abortion is done under medical supervision, which makes it healthcare by definition”. Both of these are only partially true. It is true there is support for abortion, but according to every Gallup poll that is ever released, Americans are and have been divided on the question of abortion. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 48% of Americans consider themselves pro-choice while 48% consider themselves pro-life. You can’t just say there is clear support for abortion so nurses are obligated to help with them. Americans are divided; there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t just say “there is clear opposition to abortion, so nurses and doctors are obligated to deny abortion requests”. And while many healthcare procedures are done under medical supervision, being done under medical supervision does not make it healthcare. Cosmetic surgery is done under medical supervision but is not healthcare.
She makes a few other simplistic claims which I don’t really need to address here. It should be clear that Doctor McLemore doesn’t understand what real medicine and healthcare is, despite working in that profession. She makes the claim near the end of her article that the people doctors serve know best what they need and are “experts by experience”. Not only is this an absurd claim (after all, if I know better than my doctor what I need, why am I even seeing her?), but it also shows that they need to read good pro-life ethicists, because not only do their patients questionably know better what they need than that doctor does, pro-life ethicists know better what moral procedures doctors should perform better than Dr. McLemore does.