Apologetics Series: Should Physicians Take Life?
“No one should force their morals on anyone else. It’s my body. Euthanasia is the most merciful alternative. Legislating morality involves religion, a violation of the separation of church and state.”
By Robert W. Martin, III, MD, MAR
It was noon grand rounds at a hospital just outside of San Francisco and I was the bioethicist they were having for lunch. The hot issue was the legislature’s consideration of a “Right to Die” law, so I spoke on physician-assisted suicide. Starting with Hippocrates and patient trust, I moved on to what major medical organizations had concluded. I then covered the risks to patients, physicians, and society, supporting each point with data as well as anecdotes. I then opened it up for questions.
An anesthesiologist across the table didn’t waste any time, “That was the most biased and unscientific presentation I have ever heard,” he asserted. I asked him which of the study data I presented he was challenging. Instead of answering, he spent long minutes pillorying me in particular and Christians in general. I later found out he was a member of the Hemlock Society.
National Public Radio called a few months ago and asked me to phone in as a guest for an hour-long debate about the right of conscience on a national show. They were “fair” - all the guests got equal time. The only problem was there were four against it, including the host, and then me. One of the guests, a lawyer from Planned Parenthood, went for the jugular: “You shouldn’t have ever become a doctor if you aren’t willing to perform a legal procedure. You are denying women their basic healthcare rights.”
It didn’t take me long after coming to CMDA to learn that if you speak for righteousness in the public square, some will be more than happy to throw you to the lions. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Just look at how the New Testament characters Paul and Stephen, and in more recent times, Wilberforce and Lincoln were treated.
I never planned to be a “preacher of righteousness,” as Peter described Noah in 2 Peter 2:5. It all started a few weeks after I became the CEO of CMDA in 1994. The most common comment from graduate members in those days was, “CMDA was great when I was in training, but what does it do for me now?” As I was pondering that question one day, I pulled down from the shelf CMDA’s superbly written ethics statements. Each was concise, scientific, biblical, and the official position of our organization on a wide range of important issues, yet the church and the public didn’t even know they existed.
I can’t remember what the issue was in the news a few days later, but we had a statement on it. We took the plunge, crafted our first news release and sent it to news outlets with no real idea of what their response would be. The next day the Associated Press called, a reporter and photographer came to the office, and that evening CMDA’s position was quoted in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.
In those days, I had no ethics or media training, and only bare bones experience in dealing with the press, but the wisdom of our members and God’s Word was being read in newspapers by hundreds of thousands of people at almost no cost to the organization. Our collective voice was being heard and influencing the public and decision makers. The board was enthused and many members were excited that we were speaking for them.
One of the primary reasons that physician-assisted suicide (PAS) was legalized in Oregon in 1997 was that the Oregon Medical Association took a “neutral” position. Though we spoke out, after that battle was lost I realized that CMDA needed to do more than just communicate our views. When the Hemlock Society tried to legalize PAS in Michigan, CMDA led a grassroots campaign to defeat the referendum. We worked hard to motivate, train, and equip healthcare personnel to influence church members, professional groups, and the public. We created a video of interviews with doctors and patients that we distributed to thousands of churches. We trained and equipped doctors to speak in churches and to community groups. Doctors learned how to write letters to the editor or op-ed pieces for their local newspapers. Many physicians sent a letter we created to their private practice patients telling them why PAS was dangerous to their doctor-patient relationship. I did a highly visible tour across the state, speaking on medical school campuses, doing media interviews, and mobilizing members.
When we initiated this grassroots campaign, polls showed that 70 percent of the voters favored the referendum. On Election Day, 70 percent voted against it. There is no doubt that our most secret weapon made the greatest difference. Members and churches across Michigan, not only did what they needed to do, but they also prayed. As He had done with Elijah in the Old Testament, God intervened in a miraculous way.
Michigan was the training ground for our efforts in Maine where PAS was defeated 51 to 50 percent. I have no doubt that CMDA’s efforts moved more than 1 percent of the vote. Battles in California, Vermont, and other states followed.
Hawaii was unique. We faced overwhelming odds. A former governor led the charge, the legislature was overwhelmingly for it and this time a bill was being considered. It seemed that nothing could stop the juggernaut in this David and Goliath battle. We only had around fifty members in the entire state.
But God had prepared some stones for His sling. CMDA had created the American Academy of Medical Ethics to increase our access into battlegrounds where the term Christian was not accepted. After I met with the Hawaiian Medical Association, they asked the AAME to work with them on a weeklong campaign to educate legislators at breakfasts and lunches held in the capital building. Dr. Ruth Matsuura, a CMDA member, was a political matriarch in the state. Her husband and son had both served in the legislature with distinction and were highly respected.
Here is what God did.
I did a concise twenty-five-minute presentation on PAS at each function. We then had members who specialized in pain treatment or geriatrics share their concerns before we opened the session for discussion. Some of the main proponents and backers of PAS didn’t attend, so between times Ruth and I would go office to office to meet them.
It was like having Queen Esther at my side. The front desk assistant at the Speaker of the House’s office told us we might get a meeting in two months. When she asked for our names and Ruth gave hers, she excused herself, went into the Speaker’s chambers and two minutes later we were sitting down with one of the most powerful men in the state. After all the niceties, Ruth looked at the Speaker, called him by his first name and stated, “I’ve brought an ethics expert with me and I want you to listen to what he has to say. This legislation to legalize PAS is a bad idea.”
It was my first introduction to direct lobbying, something we don’t normally do, but I figured if the Old Testament Esther, after prayer, could go to the power broker, so could we!
The stone that finally felled the giant came from an unexpected source. The third morning, as I welcomed legislators that were coming in, I met one who introduced himself as a “doctor.” I quickly found out that he was an ER doc, starting his first term and the only physician in the legislature. When I asked him his views on PAS, he related he was for it, but assured me he was going to listen with an open mind.
At the end of the session when we gave an opportunity for attendees to comment, he stood up and said, “I came in here supporting PAS, but I’m walking out opposed to it. What each of you has shared makes sense. It would be a disaster to legalize PAS in Hawaii.”
After the session he invited me back to his office and we talked. I gave him some resources to read and equip him. Later that month, he was appointed co-chair of the committee that was scheduled to consider the bill. He made sure the voices of those opposed to PAS were heard; the bill never got out of the committee.
That is just a few snapshots of how your membership in CMDA has made a difference in the cultural wars that are raging in medicine.
Today, our influence as an organization has never been greater. We have over a hundred CMDA members who we have trained to be media spokespersons. We provide expert testimony before Congress and have hundreds of contacts with Congressional and Administration officials each year to provide them with the medical, scientific, and ethical information they need. We work with many like-minded organizations to give them access to our expertise. For example, we work with the Christian Legal Society to file amicus curiae briefs on important cases before federal and state courts. The Weldon Amendment, which protects your right of conscience, has been constitutionally challenged three times. In each instance, CMDA made powerful arguments to defend your right to practice according to your deeply held religious beliefs.
Each year CMDA does hundreds of media interviews. In the last two weeks prior to my writing this article, those interviews have included the Washington Post, Associated Press Radio, Family News in Focus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Moody Network, Bloomberg Radio, and many other Christian and secular news outlets that blanket the country.
One of our greatest assets is Jonathan Imbody, our Vice President of Government Relations, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. He is our only full-time person focused on public policy, but he has a huge effect. For example, next month there will be a national conference sponsored by Health and Human Services to educate healthcare professionals on recognizing and treating the health consequences of human trafficking. That is an idea that originated with CMDA, that we have been promoting tirelessly for the past two years, as a way to rescue victims.
CMDA is now seen as the main champion of right of conscience and has brought it to the forefront with other organizations and the U.S. government.
Jonathan is a superb writer and has had letters to the editor and op-ed pieces accepted regularly for publication across the country from USA Today to the New York Times. During the height of the right of conscience battle a few months ago, he wrote as many as five or six pieces a day responding to false assertions in papers from coast to coast.
The question I’m sometimes asked is whether CMDA has become just another public policy organization, since members hear about it a lot through News & Views and our public policy alerts. You may be surprised to learn that we spend less that 5 percent of our budget in this arena compared to over half of our budget being spent in campus and community ministries. Besides Jonathan, only a handful of staff work in this area part-time. Yet, our efforts have become very visible and a high-impact part of our ministry that only requires a modest investment of our time and resources.
God is still looking for men and women who will speak the truth in love. “The Lord loves righteousness and justice,” Psalm 33:5 states, and He has uniquely equipped us as Christian healthcare professionals with the knowledge and experiences to be preachers and prophets to our culture. It is not our job to win the battle, but it is our job to be faithful voices. Anything less and we are fiddling while Rome burns.