When ideology corrupts science and medicine

Some physicians and researchers fail to see the important role of ethics and religion in the world of medical science. Others are clearly ready to sideline religion altogether when it comes to discussing the moral values that should guide the conduct of science and scientists.

Recently I came across some published remarks by Professor Richard Sloan of Columbia University dealing with the relationship between medicine and religion. He notes that even though abortion is a “perfectly legal procedure,” some physicians withhold information about the practice from their patients, claiming their decision is justified by their religious beliefs. He goes on to express his displeasure that some states have enacted conscience clauses, “to permit such religiously motivated malpractice.” He even states that in some parts of the country, patients may have “no alternative to physicians who think that their primary obligation is to honor their religious convictions rather than act in the best interests of their patients.”

His remarks expose a real tension between those who believe modern healthcare should be guided by the values of an ethically-informed conscience, and those who believe that it should be driven by various ideologies. One ideology widely encountered in the field of medicine today promotes the direct taking of human life through abortion, euthanasia, and embryo research, and neglects longstanding codes of medical ethics that insist that the first duty of the physician and the researcher is to “do no harm.”

When a physician directly takes the life of another human being, he is, in fact, committing medical malpractice, and acting directly against his central healing mission as a doctor. Abortion, by its very nature, can never be compatible with promoting human dignity. It never respects the human person. It is invariably at odds with the best interests of patients. As a component of a broader anti-life ideology, it represents a corrosive force in hospital clinics, research laboratories and other institutions of higher learning. When ideology begins to shun sound ethical thinking rooted in religion, we need to be very concerned.

I remember a story my father once told about the corrosive power of ideology, something he had witnessed first-hand living under communism, and working as a physics professor at the University of Warsaw. To enter the university and study physics, all applicants were required to pass three oral exams, one in physics, one in mathematics and the third in something called “Politics and Marxism.” All the exams were held in a single room with different tables for each subject.

One day as my father and another faculty member were interviewing candidates, a young man approached their table. It became immediately clear that he was very intelligent and gifted, and would make an excellent student. They discovered that he had been unable to gain admission to the university for the past two years, because -- even though he did brilliantly on the physics and mathematics exams -- he couldn’t seem to pass the Politics and Marxism exam.

My father and his colleague had seen this before. The communist party members who conducted these interviews would target applicants who might be religious in their outlook, asking them pointed and discriminatory questions they could not answer in good conscience, and then fail them on the exam. Fortunately for the young man, there was a policy that any faculty member was free to move among tables and ask questions during any other department’s entrance examination. So when the hopeful student approached the Politics and Marxism table, my father and his friend went over and sat down, one on each side of the communist party member running the interview.

The first question was: “Please explain how the Church is backwards and oppresses people.” The fellow remained silent, since he was a Catholic himself. My father and his colleague stepped in after a moment, and said, “Well, it’s clear that he didn’t grasp the question. Allow me to repeat the question for him: ‘What does Marxism teach about how the Catholic Church is backwards and oppresses people?’”

The fellow was then able to jump in and provide a correct answer, by affirming that the ideology of Marxism did teach thus-and-so. The questions and their refinement by my father and his colleague continued, and the communist party official became visibly agitated. The fellow ended up passing the Politics and Marxism exam, along with the physics and mathematics exams, and was admitted to the university. Although the story had a happy ending, the brilliant young man had lost two years of a successful career because of the closed-minded, anti-religious ideologies prevalent in the academic environment of the university under communism.

In academic settings today, we still encounter powerful anti-religious ideologies, as Professor Sloan’s comments remind us, and they can result in even more damaging consequences than merely delaying admission to the university. As anti-life ideologies, for example, become tolerated and even promoted as part of medicine, not only do many humans end up being destroyed along the way by abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization or embryo research, but those clinicians and researchers who decline to participate in these practices “feel the heat” and worry their careers may be at risk.

To force health care and research to embrace such anti-life ideologies is to warp and eventually corrupt modern medicine altogether. Instances of such corruption have happened only too often in the past as professors, researchers, and physicians have chosen to minimize the demands of an ethical conscience and to adopt seriously misguided ideologies. Codes of medical ethics like the Hippocratic Oath, the Nuremberg Code, and the Declaration of Helsinki came into existence after various misguided ideologies gained a foothold, and the medical establishment suffered a core meltdown, allowing doctors and researchers to participate in crimes against humanity. History sadly reminds us how quickly our human conscience, when deprived of its divine and religious dimensions, becomes untethered in a tumultuous sea of ideological temptations, and can end up on the glide path towards crime and atrocity.

Those who strive to protect the ethical integrity of medicine through conscience protection laws, and those medical professionals who ardently pursue an upright personal conscience by resisting, among other things, maiming or killing actions directed against early human life, provide an essential witness, and a critical counterbalance, to powerful and destructive ideologies that are operative in academia and health care today.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.