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Legatus Magazine

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Patrick Lee | author
Nov 01, 2011
Filed under Culture of Life
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Threats to the integrity of the medical profession

Patrick Lee writes that secularism and materialism have distorted the medical profession . . .

Dr. Patrick Lee

Medicine is a noble profession dedicated to helping patients maintain or restore their health and life. Health and life are intrinsic goods of the human person. Thus the medical profession is defined not by its provision of some commodity, but by its mission to contribute to human flourishing. But our culture threatens this truth, both in specific policies and in pervasive attitudes.

Next August a regulation from the Department of Health and Human Services is slated to mandate health insurance providers to cover “contraceptive” devices — including many that are sometimes abortifacient. This is a particularly egregious example of governmental intrusion to classify procedures as health care which are in fact the diametrical opposite of that.

Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in three states and there are organized movements to bring it to others. Physicians are being pressured to kill the severely disabled, the dying and the suffering — and to help create a culture that tells them their lives are not worth living. And regarding the beginning of life, physicians are under intense pressure to cooperate with contraception, sterilization and abortion.

Yet these recent overt threats are later symptoms — perhaps lethal in themselves — of the progression of an underlying, more extensive disease. They stem from ideas that permeate our culture (especially in medical schools) that block any coherent view of the true mission of the medical profession. The chief of these influential ideas are materialism and secularism.

The basic premise underlying the truth that medicine is a distinct and noble profession is that the human person is of incalculable dignity — each person is irreplaceable, inherently valuable and should be treated with reverence. And so the patient enters a sacred trust with his physician. The physician doesn’t just have a job, but a mission to cooperate actively with a patient to help the whole person with respect to his health.

Since health is only one of many intrinsic goods of the person, the person seeking health care is the ultimate authority in deciding whether or not to accept the physician’s recommendations. Therefore, paternalism — making all the decisions for the patient — is wrong. Yet the patient’s rightful autonomy does not mean that the physician is obliged to do whatever the patient demands. The physician is committed to the patient’s true well-being, and the physician is also a real moral agent with moral responsibility for his actions. Thus, the physician is not just a functionary or a technician hired to produce a specific product or result. The physician (and the whole health-care team) should cooperate with the patient to serve his overall well-being with respect to health.

Materialism denies that the human being has a spiritual aspect. Secularism is the view that religion is a mere distraction and even harmful. Secularism also often leads to the view that there is no objective meaning and value in the universe — and that we ourselves endow it with whatever meaning and value we choose. Health-care professionals need not themselves be materialists or secularists for their outlook on patients to be profoundly influenced by these views. Such views permeate our culture and there is often an assumption that even if one does not personally hold them, one’s actions must be guided by them in the public domain. Hence there is often a tendency to lose sight of the patient as a whole person and to view him as a mere machine. Then, instead of trying to help a person decide how best to fulfill his particular responsibilities, the medical challenges become viewed as mere technical problems to be fixed.

It is often rightly said that a physician needs to treat the whole person. But it doesn’t mean that the physician must try to solve issues outside his expertise. Rather, it means that the physician should remember that he’s treating health issues that will fit within the whole set of responsibilities and vocation of a person of inestimable worth.

Materialism and secularism together create an environment which obscures the actual nature of the people in need of health care. To the extent that human beings are viewed as mere complex machines (materialism), health-care professionals will find it virtually impossible to treat patients with reverence. And to the extent that reality is viewed as lacking any inherent meaning and value (secularism), health care will be reduced to mere mechanics, and then health-care professionals will be fair game for bureaucrats insisting that destructive and lethal procedures must be part of their training and practice.

In truth, we are created in the image of God, and we are sacred. Health-care professionals need to remind themselves of that, need to be vocal about their beliefs and need to strive to treat their patients with reverence and awe, begging God for his guidance and grace in their important mission.

Patrick Lee, Ph.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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