Among the wide range of faiths and religious dogmas in the world, there are some that govern or regulate certain conduct regarding medical care and procedures. From circumcision to abortion, from refusal to accept vaccinations or blood transfusions to objections to certain surgeries, many religiously guided medical decisions create some controversy for the greater society as a whole.
For many people, the opinions of trained medical professionals are sacrosanct with respect to questions of diagnosis or treatment and care of the body. For others, a higher authority dictates answers in all areas of life, including the choice to submit an infant to vaccination, which involves injecting a small amount of toxin into the child's body to inoculate the child against measles or polio.
As society addresses increased concerns of a measles outbreak (or polio, or other diseases that have been nearly eradicated by wide use of vaccinations), the question arises whether it is better to require all people, regardless of objections, to undergo medical procedures that society deems critical. When parents choose faith over medicine for a terminally ill child, are they within their rights to deny the alleged benefits of modern medicine to minors who cannot choose for themselves?
A court challenge in Canada pits two Christian medical associations against the board that governs the practice of medicine in Ottawa. The province's College of Physicians and Surgeons has adopted a new policy that requires physicians to offer referrals in good faith when they have a moral or religious objection to providing certain procedures or medications themselves.
Doctors who refuse to provide abortions or certain contraceptives that they oppose are not obligated to perform the objectionable processes except in cases of emergencies, but they are required to refer their patients who request such services to a qualified provider of medical services who does not object to the morals of the procedures. The two groups and numerous individual physicians oppose the requirement of referral, saying it is in violation of their rights of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, in that it forces them to be complicit in conduct that they oppose. Complaints last year followed an Ottawa walk-in clinic's refusal, on grounds of religious objection, to provide birth control medication to a woman who sought care at the clinic.
Religious Right to Choose for Minors?
While most people respect the rights of individuals in society to follow the dictates of their conscience regarding medical care, there are real debates about the right of parents to fail to treat their children with medical procedures based on religious objections. The state of Idaho has one of the most protective laws for parents, exculpating them from legal liability for failure to seek medical care due to a religious objection, even when their child's condition grows worse or becomes fatal.
Others point to recent measles outbreaks as indications of society's compelling need to mandate certain types of medical intervention over the religious objections of some people. Parents are permitted to opt their children out of compulsory vaccinations on religious grounds. Others say that the failure of some parents to vaccinate their children exposes society to greater danger when the disease spreads.
Modern Medicine and Religion
As modern medical technology progresses, there are those who hold to old ways of believing and behaving, ways that they continue to believe are directed by God. In a country that professes great respect for individual beliefs and varying faiths, it is difficult to issue firm directives on issues that may override some firmly held spiritual beliefs of people in the society. Following the guideline of doing no harm, many find that it is best to allow all individuals to listen to their own inner guidance on personal issues of medical care and moral behavior.