Symposium on Ethics in the Doctor-Patient Relationship and Christianity

October 5, 2018 – October 6, 2018
350 Bisgrove Hall

The Doctor-Patient Relationship: Does Christianity Make a Difference?

 The nature of the doctor-patient relationship is central to the practice of medicine and thus to bioethics. The American Medical Association states, “The practice of medicine, and its embodiment in the clinical encounter between a patient and a physician, is fundamentally a moral activity that arises from the imperative to care for patients and to alleviate suffering. The relationship between a patient and a physician is based on trust, which gives rise to physicians’ ethical responsibility to place patients’ welfare above the physician’s own self-interest or obligations to others, to use sound medical judgment on patients’ behalf, and to advocate for their patients’ welfare.” In this symposium, made possible by the generous gift of Rose Bente Lee Ostapenko, we explore explore various ways in which Christianity can affect the relationship between physician and patient. 

Friday October 5

 2:30-3:35 Phillip Reed, Canisius College “How Might a Christian Conception of the Doctor-Patient Relationship Inform the Assisted Suicide Debate?”

 The debate about physician-assisted suicide has long been entwined with the nature of the doctor-patient relationship. Opponents of physician-assisted suicide insist that the traditional goals of medicine do not and should not include intentionally bringing about a patient’s death, whereas proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue that this practice is an appropriate tool for doctors to relieve a patient’s suffering. In this paper, I discuss these issues in light of the relevance of a Christian account of the doctor-patient relationship. I argue that a focus on the Christian virtues of charity, compassion, and humility are a more effective witness against physician-assisted suicide than appeal to moral absolutes or conscientious objection.


4:00-5:15 Aaron Cobb, Auburn University at Montgomery “Perinatal Hospice and the Christian Physician​

Perinatal hospice is a novel extension of the core principles of palliative and hospice care to families of unborn children who have been diagnosed with significantly life-limiting conditions. Christian defenses of perinatal hospice tend to focus on its status as an alternative to abortion. In this essay, I seek to show that this kind of defense has important limitations. And I propose an alternative Christian virtue-based defense of this form of care. Drawing on analyses of the Christian virtues of humility and hope, I propose a distinct defense of the promotion and provision of perinatal hospice.


Saturday October 6

 10:00-11:15 Jason Eberl, St. Louis University “Visions of the Common Good: Engelhardt’s Engagement with Catholic Social Teaching”

The views of the late Tristram Engelhardt are largely influenced by his Orthodox Catholic faith and libertarianism. An area of potentially fruitful disagreement between Engelhardt’s views and Roman Catholic teaching concerns societal obligations to provide healthcare services to the poor and disenfranchised. Engelhardt distinguishes between the naturally “unfortunate” and those who have been “unfairly” disadvantaged; Roman Catholic social teaching emphasizes complementary principles of subsidiarity—according with Engelhardt’s libertarianism—and solidarity—calling for societal redress of misfortunes. Dialogue between Engelhardtian libertarians and egalitarian-inclined Christians may yield a vision of healthcare that preserves both individual freedoms and succor for the least advantaged.


11:30-12:45 Patrick Tully, University of Scranton “The Catholic Moral Tradition and the Principles and Practices of Contemporary Medicine”The focal question of this symposium is, "The Doctor-Patient Relationship: Does Christianity Make a Difference?" My answer is "yes".  In making the case for this answer, I shall focus upon the Catholic moral tradition, but much (if not all) of what I lay out from that tradition would likely be affirmed by the faithful from any of the traditions within Christianity.

 Often Catholic health care professionals and institutions are noticed for what they, in conscience, won't do (physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia, abortion, et al.).  Personal and institutional commitments to refrain from these practices is often framed by critics in a negative way, and decisions consistent with these commitments are commonly presented as decisions to “deny treatment" to patients in need.  The conclusion one is invited to draw from all this is that the Catholic moral tradition is inimical to the practice of medicine in our modern and morally pluralistic culture.  This paper offers an alternative to that familiar narrative.  It highlights a few important moral principles and guidelines promulgated by some contemporary health-professional organizations and makes the case that the Catholic tradition's accounts of (i) the value/moral status/dignity of the human being, (ii) the nature of health, and (iii) the nature and importance of conscience, philosophically underwrite these important principles and consequent practices rather well, and often better than the alternatives on offer.  It will be seen, then, that this tradition is far from inimical to the practice of medicine today, and that it offers philosophically serious grounds on which to rest (and from which to defend) many of the values and guidelines endorsed by contemporary health-professional organizations and their members.


2:00-3:15 David Hershenov, University at Buffalo “Conscientious Objection or an Internal Morality of Medicine?"
Christian health care workers often appeal to a right of conscientious objection to be exempted from taking part in what they consider to be morally objectionable acts. Their critics often make a pair of intertwined objections. A principle of conscientious objection is charged with being unable to provide a principled line for conscience exemptions and for allowing medical professionals to evade  their responsibilities to their patients. I will argue that there is little need for religious health care workers  to make appeals to conscience to avoid engaging in what secular bioethics often considers to be established or proper medical practices like those that prevent or fatally end pregnancies. Religious health care workers (and others opposed to such acts) can appeal to the pathocentric nature of medicine and justifiably claim that such pathology-inducing practices are contrary to the nature of their craft. Any plausible internal morality of medicine should, at the least, protect medical practitioners from penalties for refusing to act in a way that is contrary to the essence of their profession.  



3:30-5:45 Christopher Tollefsen, University of South Carolina “Solidarity and Trust in the Doctor Patient Relationship”

In this paper I first contrast two accounts of the nature of medicine, which I call the Way of Medicine and the Provider of Services Model of Medicine. Second, I discuss how the practice of medicine on the Way of Medicine should best be understood as a vocational commitment of the physician.  Third, that practice will be shown to have two necessary features when it is in good working order: it will be characterized by the virtue of solidarity, and the presence of a high degree of trust between physician and patient.  Finally, I show three ways this account should be expanded in light of Christian revelation and a physician’s presence in a Christian faith tradition.