Friday, February 15, 2008
Doing God's Work
In response to outbreaks of MRSA and c.difficile, hospitals in England have instituted various hygiene policies, including the need for medical staff to have bare arms, which they must wash to the elbows. Muslim female medical students are refusing, on grounds of immodesty inconsistent with Muslim law. When mentioned on the website Pharyngula, among the comments thereon was this:
Many moons ago I lived with a Bedouin hill tribe near Petra in Jordan. One winter I got terribly sick with pneumonia and had to receive treatment by a Muslim doctor in Petra. Whilst he was a lovely man and their training is first rate he still had to adhere to the silly requirements of his religion. As such, sick as a dog, I could only be examined from the other side of a sheet held up by his two giggling nurses. I explained that it didn't worry me to be examined and to go ahead, lift up my top and listen to my lungs, but no, still had to have that damn sheet. I was in that clinic for a week and all I remember in my delerium is that...sheet.
Some time ago, in another context I wrote about the very regal and imposing matriarch of an immigrant Muslim family on whom I operated. Seeing her in my office, I was forbidden, in no uncertain terms, from exposing her in any way when I examined her; I thumped, prodded and auscultated through her black coverings. When she came for surgery we brought her fully clothed in her religious garb into the OR, and I left it on during the whole operation, sliding it up (while keeping her lower body covered) only after she was asleep. Both the office exam and the OR proceedings broke a few rules of thoroughness, but I really didn't have a problem with it. I made some non-critical compromises to accommodate her beliefs; I assume (but don't know) that under other circumstances -- like evaluating her in critical shape after a car wreck -- her family would have allowed whatever uncovering was necessary.
In refusing for religious reasons to allow a full exam, my patient was the one taking the risk, however small, of forcing me to be incomplete: her religion, her problem. Had I thought it dangerous, I'd either have insisted otherwise, or if unsuccessful, I suppose, refused to provide care (since it was elective.) But the situation in England (and in Petra, for that matter) is different: in following their covenants the medics are putting others at risk. People have right to practice their religion freely (in most Western countries, anyway.) But isn't a line being crossed here? If your religion prohibits you from doing certain things, professionally, that are in the interest of others, ought you not opt out of that particular profession?
Well, of course. And in the US, there are pharmacists who refuse to dispense "morning after" pills for similar reasons. What's next? Young-earth firefighters not rescuing a married gay couple?