Why This Election is A Yawner

DrRich | October 29th, 2010 - 11:39 am

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DrRich is amazed at all the attention being paid to the impending mid-term election.

Breathless commentators speculate endlessly whether Republicans will take over the House and Senate, or just the House; and small-time operatives who in the heat of battle blurt out words like “whore,” or “bitch” (it truly is the Year of the Woman!), or inflammatory phrases like “punishing our enemies,” are subjected to endless public psychoanalysis. The angst is palpable.

For those of us interested in healthcare reform the coming election is an interesting sideshow, but it will not substantially change the cascade of events that has been set in motion by a) history, b) the election of Mr. Obama and his dogged persistence in passing his healthcare legislation by whatever means necessary, and c) the implications of the election of New Jersey Governor Christie a year ago.

As DrRich has said to his readers countless times, the real meaning of Obamacare is that the job of covertly rationing America’s healthcare is being formally transferred from the insurance companies (which have had quite enough, and which did everything they could to see that Obamacare became law), to the government. That transfer of the responsibility for covert rationing to the government is merely the natural culmination of 50 years of history. And the fortuitous election of Mr. Obama is merely the particular event (like the dropping of a crystal into a supersaturated solution) that finally brought a historical inevitability to fruition.

But the election of Governor Christie – now that was a real Wild Card. Christie’s election revealed (to DrRich, at least) that the government’s takeover of covert rationing (which, obviously, requires a government takeover of healthcare) may not be the end of the story.

At this point, some of DrRich’s readers undoubtedly think he is referring to Christie’s conservative economic outlook; his willingness to take on public employees, teachers, and others whose unions, over the years, coerced and/or bribed corrupt politicians into awarding them unsustainable entitlements that are incompatible with a stable society. They think DrRich is referring to the fact that, if even the people of very-blue New Jersey are willing to elect such a conservative Republican, then the Progressive agenda (and hence Obamacare) must actually be in real trouble.

While there may indeed be something to this argument, it’s not at all what DrRich is referring to.

Rather, DrRich is referring to the fact that the voters of New Jersey, at a time when Mr. Obama’s popularity was still quite high, chose to violate a pattern they had established over the manifold generations, chose to knock the stars out of alignment, chose not to return to office Mr. Corzine, the incumbent Democrat in a strongly Democratic state, who was strongly supported by President Obama himself, and instead chose to break with all of history, with all tradition, with their primeval instinct, and with their common sense, and elect instead – a fat guy.

Electing a fat man, DrRich must point out, was not incidental. Corzine cagily made it a campaign issue by running campaign ads reminding New Jersey voters that Mr. Christie was obese, and that he was not. Mr. Christie himself was driven by this tactic into a public admission that he indeed was quite overweight (and offered the lame suggestion that his obesity was irrelevant to the job he was seeking).

Any voter pulling the lever was necessarily thinking, “fat guy, or skinny guy?” And they, with malice aforethought, picked the fat one.

This was absolutely stunning. The implications are too far-reaching to exaggerate.

For a long time now – but especially since the beginning of the Obama Presidency – a concerted and sophisticated campaign to begin “culling out” the obese has taken place. This campaign has been conducted with great energy by everyone who matters – the government, academia, various covertly-funded consumer groups, and numerous industries and enterprises whose success depends on lots of fat people becoming desperate to lose weight. We have been assured that the obese are fat by choice, and that as a result, by their own volition they have allowed themselves to become a threat to humanity (by, among other things, increasing global warming), and most especially, a threat to the fiscal stability of our healthcare system and therefore our nation.

The message is clear: If we don’t get the obesity epidemic under control we are lost as a people. (Historians may find it interesting to note that this epidemic was greatly accelerated in 1998, when the NIH changed the definitions of “overweight” and “obese” from a BMI of 28 and 32, respectively, to a BMI of 25 and 30. The very next morning, tens of millions of previously healthy Americans woke up to find themselves fat. Even more than most epidemics, this one developed with the speed of a tsunami.)

Obamacare – which places the control of the healthcare system into the beneficent hands of our political leaders – finally provides the tools to eliminate this scourge. It will take some tough love. But for the good of America (and, who knows? possibly for the good of the obese themselves) we’ve got to do it.

Central to our efforts to save our country is the conviction that the obese are different, and while they may be potentially salvageable as worthy humans, in their present state (posing as they do such an existential threat to the rest of us), they need to be (at the very least) ostracized.

Perhaps the most telling example of just how far we had come in this regard occurred in July, 2009, when President Obama named Dr. Regina Benjamin as Surgeon General. When it appeared from certain pictures and television images that Dr. Benjamin may be somewhat overweight, critics pounced immediately. How can one become the epaulet-wearing Head Doctor of All America, in the middle of a life-threatening obesity epidemic no less, and be fat? No fat person should ever rise to any position of prominence (where he or she could potentially become a role model for young Americans) – much less this particular position.

It must have brought a tear of joy to the anti-obesity crowd to learn that being obese now so demonstrably trumped being: a) an African American, b) a woman, c) a hero who dedicated herself to providing medical care to the Katrina-ravaged poor, and d) strongly supported by President Obama himself.

But all this progress (and all this hope) was dashed just a few months later by the voters of New Jersey, when they chose to elect a fatty.

When an obese Republican can be elevated to such a position of prominence and responsibility, and by a Democratic electorate to boot, the anti-obesity campaign has been set back by decades. That a rotund candidate could emerge victorious despite such an onslaught – and not, as the breathless conjectures of our professional punditry suggest, a Republican resurgence – is the real threat to healthcare reform.

A government-run healthcare system permits – nay, demands! – that we declare to the obese that their unsightly physiques are no longer a matter of personal choice, but are now a matter of legitimate public concern. The choices they are making – that is, their gluttony, sloth and all other manner of self-indulgence – are placing unwanted and unsustainable demands on us purer, svelter, fellow-citizens.

More importantly, ostracizing the obese sets an important precedent for our wise leaders to restrict, control and tax virtually any human behavior they can claim may lead to an increased risk of healthcare expenditures – which, really, encompasses virtually any human behavior you can think of. Furthermore, successfully dehumanizing the obese will establish that our society may, whenever it needs to, discriminate against the lower economic classes (since these classes are well known to indulge in becoming overweight). And finally, since obesity (despite our decision to blame it on personal failings) is largely determined by genetic predisposition, our success in dehumanizing the obese will give us a useful tool which we can later employ to withhold healthcare expenditures for other genetically-mediated medical conditions.

It is clear that successfully demonizing the obese is a vital pillar of Obamacare.

Now perhaps, Dear Reader, you can see why the election of Christie in New Jersey was such a potential catastrophe. It is his obesity, rather than his Republicanism, that poses such a threat to healthcare reform and thus to the Obama administration.

It was the result of the New Jersey election a year ago, and not the results of the impending mid-term election (which will merely add an exclamation point to New Jersey’s declarative statement) that changed the landscape. Clearly, the anti-obesity movement, despite concentrated, coordinated and sustained efforts to make overweight Americans feel subhuman, has failed. The election of Christie – wherein the electorate of a Democratic state has raised up to prominence a fat guy, despite the damage that does to the long-term prospects of Obamacare – was the real blow.

For if We the People (even that part of “We” who are Democrats) refuse to follow the dictates of the Central Authority as it attempts to educate us on Right Thinking, then the passage of Obamacare cannot actually represent the culmination of Progressive history. It means that the final chapter has not yet been written, and real hope remains for those of us who do not buy into the Progressive program.

And this is true whatever the results of Tuesday’s election. Thank you, New Jersey.

How Will Progressives Ration Healthcare?

DrRich | October 25th, 2010 - 7:46 am

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In prior posts DrRich introduced his readers to Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, brother of Rahm, eminent medical ethicist, and one of the White House’s chief advisers on healthcare policy. Dr. Emanuel was one of the authors of that recent paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine which admonished American physicians that resistance is futile. He has also famously called upon American physicians to abandon the obsolete medical ethics expressed in the Hippocratic Oath.

The reason the ideas (and pronouncements) of Dr. Emanuel are important is that he presumably will be a major “decider” in determining who will serve on the GOD panels, and how those panels will operate to advance his (and Mr. Obama’s) program of healthcare reform.

So, before we leave Dr. Emanuel to his important duties, let us take one more pass at the views he has expressed, regarding the direction of American healthcare, which we can expect to see manifested in government guidelines and policies in the coming years.

In particular, and especially relevant to the subject of this blog, let us view how Dr. Emanuel would direct the rationing of our healthcare.

His ideas in this regard were probably spelled out most clearly in an article Dr. Emanuel co-authored in The Lancet, in January, 2009, which proposed a system of healthcare rationing based on what he and co-authors call the “complete lives system.” Most notably, the complete lives system proposes rationing healthcare on the basis of age, in a way that frankly “discriminates against older people” (The Lancet, Vol 373, p 429).

While Emanuel has taken a lot of heat from the right wing for espousing such a thing, his argument for doing so is unique and thoughtful, and DrRich finds it worthy of more careful consideration.

First, we should note that the outrage we often hear expressed at the very idea of healthcare rationing (with each side accusing the other of wanting to ration) only applies to politicians. When healthcare ethicists get together for instance, they (like DrRich) understand that healthcare rationing is utterly unavoidable, and that in fact we’re already not avoiding it. Ethicists argue, instead, about how to do it. In this way, DrRich feels a certain sense of brotherhood with these ethicists (a group which, in nearly every other way, DrRich most often feels a sense of disgust).

So let us consider the ethical argument most often made for discriminating against the elderly in a system of healthcare rationing. Almost always, the argument is a utilitarian one. Saving the life of a 90-year-old might “buy” him only an extra two or three years of life, whereas spending the same amount of money to save a 10-year-old might buy him another 70 – 80 years of life. So society gains much more if it spends the money on the younger person, and withholds it from the older one. From a utilitarian viewpoint the argument for discriminating against the elderly is unassailable.

Non-utilitarian ethics asserts that all individuals have equal value, so discriminating against any person should be avoided, and therefore the 10-year-old and the 90-year-old should have an equal opportunity to receive the medical service in question. (That is, either both should get it or neither should get it.)

DrRich believes that most people would sympathize with the idea that if only one life can be saved, saving a young person’s life might make more sense than saving a very old person’s life. He thinks that even most 90-year-olds he has known would agree with this proposition. The problem, DrRich believes, is with the rationale we use for making such a decision.

The utilitarian argument for discriminating against the elderly in a rationing system rests on the idea (as does all utilitarian ethical reasoning) that individuals are not of equal value, at least, not from society’s point of view. And since they are not equivalent in value, it is right and proper for some agent of society to determine the relative value of individuals, so that resources can be distributed accordingly.

Obviously, utilitarian ethics opens the door for differentiating the intrinsic values of individuals for reasons other than age. That is, if you can devalue the elderly to optimize the public good, then you can also devalue the disabled, the stupid, the lazy, the left-handed, and the obese (for instance) to optimize public good.

Emanuel’s “complete lives system,” he argues, is NOT a utilitarian one. Emanuel would favor treating the 10-year-old over the 90-year-old not to maximize public good, but to maximize the opportunity of individuals to enjoy “complete lives” over the entire age spectrum. That is, under his system all individuals are taken as having equal intrinsic value. And during the course of their lives, everyone experiences an equal spectrum of priorities – first, the priority of a 10-year-old, and later (if lucky enough to live that long) the priority of a 90-year-old. While in practical terms this still means discriminating against the elderly, it does so in a way that cannot be extended to other groups of people (i.e, the disabled and so forth), and that, in fact, yields equal age-based priorities across individuals through the course of their complete lives. In other words, when one considers the entire course of an individual’s complete life, he or she is treated the same as any other individual during the entire course of their lives.

In this way, Emanuel asserts, the complete lives system is not a utilitarian system; while it would allow us to withhold medical care from the elderly, based on their age, it would do so in a way that would not open the door for discriminating against others, for other reasons.

DrRich understands this reasoning because he proposed something entirely similar in his book, as an option for dealing with the age issue in a rationing system. In fact, since DrRich wrote his book a few years before Emanuel published his “complete lives system,” it is entirely possible that Emanuel got his idea from yours truly.

DrRich does not expect any thanks from Dr. Emanuel in this regard, however, and in fact he wishes to thank Dr. Emanuel for showing him the fatal flaw in such thinking. Indeed, thanks to Dr. Emanuel, if DrRich were to produce a new edition of his book, he would propose no such thing.

For, no sooner does Dr. Emanuel propose his complete lives system as an alternative to utilitarian ethical reasoning, than he demonstrates, in the very same article, how easily his system can be twisted to the ends of utilitarian ethics.

Specifically, Emanuel argues that a healthcare rationing system should also discriminate against the very young, and asserts that his “complete lives system” justifies such discrimination (since every individual, at one time in their lives, is very young). But in explaining why it would be desirable to withhold medical services from the very young, Emanuel reveals that his rationale, in fact, is entirely utilitarian:

“Consideration of the importance of complete lives also supports modifying the youngest-first principle by prioritizing adolescents and young adults over infants (figure). Adolescents have received substantial education and parental care, investments that will be wasted without a complete life. Infants, in contrast, have not yet received these investments.” (The Lancet, vol 373, p. 428)

livessavedSo, Emanuel holds that it is OK to discriminate against infants, toddlers and young children on the grounds that society has not “invested” a lot of resources in them yet. That is, their worth to society is not all that great.

This provision is extremely disturbing, to DrRich at least. For it essentially discards the notion that all human lives are of equal intrinsic value, in favor of the idea that an individual’s real value ought to be determined by their worthiness to the collective. And so society has the right and the duty to determine which individual lives are valuable enough to save, and which are not. Note that the rationale for discriminating against the elderly in the complete lives system was framed specifically to avoid having to do this.

In DrRich’s view, this provision against the young entirely negates the purported ethical premise of “complete lives.” This provision is what finally places the state, the insurers, or the GOD panels in the position of assigning intrinsic value to individual human lives, from a distance, as a matter of policy. If this can be done based on extreme youth, then it can also be done based on any other factor which some empowered panel decides will influence the worth of individuals to society.

The above figure, from Emanuel’s article on the complete lives system, reduces the question to a stark graph, with age on the X axis and value to society on the Y axis. Your age is determined by God. Your value to society is determined by the state.

It is easy to envision other, similar graphs, with your worthiness to society plotted on the Y axis, and certain personal features other than age plotted on the X axis – your income, your IQ, your disabilities, your BMI, etc.

DrRich reminds his readers that eugenics has been, from the beginning, an intrinsic part of the Progressive program. The idea that society can (and must) be perfected hinges, to a large extent, on the idea that mankind can (and must) be perfected. And perfecting mankind will require at least some culling of the herd. Indeed, early Progressives unabashedly embraced eugenics as an essential feature of societal perfection – and said so. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, and Margaret Sanger are only the most well-known of the Progressives who openly extolled eugenics.

Openly espousing eugenics became politically inadvisable after the Nazi atrocities came to light. But, since you can never achieve a perfect society while you are “carrying” a large proportion of people who are defective in their bodies, or minds, or thoughts, finding an acceptable way to eliminate such undesirables remains intrinsic to Progressivism.

DrRich believes that gaining control of the healthcare system, and gaining control of who gets what, when and how, provides both a new venue and a new language for Progressives to bring their program to fruition.

He humbly suggests that Dr. Emanuel’s “complete lives system” is an example of this new language, and that it offers a glimpse of what a system of Progressive healthcare rationing will look like.

The Dire Implications For Doctors Of the New Medical Ethics

DrRich | October 19th, 2010 - 7:34 am

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In his last post (and in several past discussions) DrRich asserted that the Hippocratic Oath has been declared formally and officially obsolete by the medical profession itself, and that as a result of this action, the medical profession has voluntarily placed the professional viability of all physicians entirely into the hands of the government. Hence, DrRich has postulated, the Amish Bus Driver Rule is thereby activated, which permits (and probably compels) the government to use the leverage of medical licensure to control and direct the behavior of physicians – even their ethical behavior.

Lest anyone think DrRich is exaggerating about this, let us listen to the words of some of the physician-intellectuals who now hold positions of official responsibility, within the Central Authority itself, for determining the behavior of American doctors. DrRich asks his readers to notice both the content and the tone of these words, as both are important.

First, listen carefully to Donald Berwick, MD, recent recess-appointee to the position of head of CMS, in a passage from his ominously-titled book “New Rules,” (co-written with our old friend Troyen Brennan, MD):

“Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible… Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care…Regulation must evolve. Regulating for improved medical care involves designing appropriate rules with authority…Health care is being rationalized through critical pathways and guidelines. The primary function of regulation in health care, especially as it affects the quality of medical care, is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”

(Thanks to Dr. Gaulte of the excellent blog, Retired Doc’s Thoughts, for pointing us to this valuable passage.)

Dr. Berwick’s views on the need to constrain individualized decision-making in the practice of medicine is echoed by none other than Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD. Dr. Emanuel is a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health, and a fellow at The Hastings Center (a bioethics research institution). He is the brother of former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (himself an expert in political ethics). Dr. Emanuel was brought in to the Obama administration as a high-ranking adviser on healthcare reform, and is widely expected to have a strong hand in determining who will sit on the GOD panels and how those panels will operate.

Regular readers will recall that Dr. Emanuel is also the co-author of that infamous paper recently accepted for publication in the Annals of Internal Medicine (and whose editors, thereby, formally auditioned for seats on those GOD panels) which called upon American physicians to abandon their ancient tradition of primarily serving their patients, and instead embrace their true destiny, which is assimilating into the Borg.

DrRich has found two instances in Dr. Emanuel’s writings in which he specifically commented on the obsolescence of the Hippocratic Oath.

In the May 16, 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, in an article entitled, “What Cannot Be Said on Television About Health Care,” Emanuel expresses the following complaint about American physicians: “Reasoning based on cost has been strenuously resisted; it violated the Hippocratic Oath, was associated with rationing, and derided as putting a price on life, akin to the economist who knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

In the June 18, 2008 issue of the same journal, in an article on healthcare “overutilization,” he discussed seven factors that drive the overuse of medical services. He identifies one of these factors as a “culture of unwarranted thoroughness” on the part of American doctors, which serves to drive up cost. “This culture is further reinforced by a unique understanding of professional obligations, specifically, the Hippocratic Oath’s admonition to ‘use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment’ as an imperative to do everything for the patient regardless of cost or effect on others.”

Thus, Emanuel finds that it is a stubborn adherence to outdated medical ethics, which causes doctors to strictly place their individual patient’s interests above society’s interests, that accounts for a substantial proportion of unnecessary healthcare costs.

These passages from the very physicians who are directly driving healthcare policy through the auspices not of professional medical organizations, but through the auspices of the Central Authority itself, are striking in two ways.

First, their directness is striking. Doctors no longer work for the good of their patients; they work for the good of the collective. And heretofore they are obligated to follow the rules which are promulgated centrally, rules backed by the righteous force of the Central Authority, rules whose primary function is to make sure that decisions on medical care will be directed centrally, rather than at the doctor-patient level.

Second, the indignation these passages reflect is striking. The obligation of physicians to follow central directives is not an item of negotiation or persuasion – it is a DONE DEAL. Physicians’ own elected leadership of their own professional organizations – all of them – have formally signed on to the New Ethics, ethics which obligate doctors to practice medicine in a way that follows the dictates of remote panels guarding the interests of the collective  (rather in a way that jealously guards the needs of individual patients). And while this abandonment of an ethical precept that had been in force for over two millennia was promulgated with little fanfare, and while most practicing physicians seem not to realize that it has even happened (though we can be sure that all medical students everywhere are being steeped in it), it is a DONE DEAL.

And doctors who persist in practicing the “old way,” are not only acting in a manner that is “no longer tenable or possible,” but they are also violating the very ethical precepts which their own profession has now voluntarily adopted. They are behaving unethically. They are being evil.

No wonder our physician leaders are indignant. No wonder they have little choice but to divine the necessary “rules with authority” to force these recalcitrant physicians to do their self-admitted duty to the collective. By persisting with their old fashioned ideas in the face of that which medical ethics now prescribes, doctors are forcing the Central Authority to take strong action. Fortunately, since (we all know) our government is a benign entity, it will begin gently, with tough central rules and regulations (backed by authority) to “constrain decentralized individualized decision making.” The Central Authority will only invoke the Amish Bus Driver Rule (or worse) if these kinder, gentler steps fail.

As for the doctors who do not like this new reality, DrRich has a harsh message. You brought this on yourselves, by allowing your professional organizations to propose, write, and adopt these “New Medical Ethics.” For all the statements of Berwick, and Emanuel, and other health policy experts, castigating you for your inadherence to these new ethics, are predicated on the fact that you have a formally-adopted obligation to follow them.

It does no good to protest that you yourself were unaware that your profession has taken this formal action. Just as President Obama is your President whether you voted for him or not, the New Ethics is your formal rule whether you agreed with it (or were aware of it) or not.

And if you do not like the idea that the details of your behavior as a practicing physician are going to be handed down from on-high, and that you are not to be permitted any longer to primarily advocate for your patient, against the competing interests of the slavering Central Authority, you have nobody to blame except yourself.

And what this tells us is that if you are going to change things, you cannot hope to seek relief from legislators, or from your medical leadership (which has already assimilated with the Borg). Your only hope is to begin by reclaiming your profession yourselves, and re-asserting your primary obligation to your patient. There are several ways to undertake such a course, all of which will require standing up to the government and to your own leadership, and all of which will be difficult and dangerous at this late stage.  But it is the only path that remains open to you for your professional salvation.

Just keep this undeniable fact in mind: Obamacare, or any other form of centralized control over the practice of medicine, can only be achieved with the active acquiescence of physicians themselves. If physicians decide they simply will not allow themselves to be coerced to unethical medical actions, and insist on reestablishing the doctor-patient covenant as the guiding precept of their profession, the entire house of cards will fall. Physicians are far from powerless, if they would only dare to act.

We will still need healthcare reform, to be sure, but physicians have the power to insist that it can only be a kind of healthcare reform which fully honors and guarantees that covenant.

Medical Ethics and the Amish Bus Driver Rule

DrRich | October 12th, 2010 - 9:21 am

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Rachel Maddow, in a discussion related to the provision of abortion services, once proposed that we (society) should invoke the Amish Bus Driver Rule whenever medical professionals invoke their personal convictions in refusing to provide legal medical services.

The Amish Bus Driver Rule goes like this: If you’re Amish, and therefore have religious convictions against internal combustion engines, then you have disqualified yourself for employment as a bus driver. (Presumably Ms. Maddow would not apply the Amish Bus Driver Rule to everyone, since it would disqualify, for instance, Al Gore from utilizing horseless carriages and other fossil-fueled contrivances.)

The Amish Bus Driver Rule would do far more than merely render it OK for doctors to perform abortions and other ethically controversial (but legal) medical services. The ABDR would obligate physicians to provide such services, whatever their personal moral or religious convictions.

The reason DrRich brings this up is not because he considers Rachel Maddow to be the giver of rules for the left, or for the government, or even for MSNBC. Rather, he brings it up because the Amish Bus Driver Rule is entirely compatible with Progressive medical ethics, and therefore it has a pretty good chance, sooner or later, of becoming the official policy of our new healthcare system.

To spell it out: Once you agree to accept from the government a license to practice medicine, and thus accept a privileged and restricted position within our society, then you are naturally obligated to provide any medical services, approved by the government, that you are called upon to provide. In particular, you are obligated to check your personal  – and most especially, your religious – convictions at the door. If you are unwilling to carry out this obligation, then, like the Amish bus driver, you have disqualified yourself from that privileged position. Go do some other job that does not violate your prissy sensibilities.

This logic is eminently simple. In fact, it can be reduced to an elementary syllogism:

Premise 1: Society awards physicians an exclusive license to provide legitimate medical services.

Premise 2: Society deems certain medical services such as abortion, assisted suicide or euthanasia to be legitimate medical services.

Conclusion: Therefore, all licensed physicians are obligated to provide these services.

Many conservatives will be nearly apoplectic over the idea that doctors who are morally opposed to life-ending medical activities must either agree to perform those activities (once society decides they are legitimate medical services) or leave the profession. But conservatives, proud of their self-described tradition of acting on the basis of hard data and cold logic (unlike those silly liberals who let simple emotions rule them), find themselves in this instance stymied by the very foundation of logic – the syllogism. They are hoisted on their own petard.

Indeed, doctors who object to having to provide life-ending medical services find themselves in quite a fix, and what’s more, it is a fix that has resulted from the actions of their own profession.

When we are faced with a syllogism whose internal logic is unassailable, but whose conclusion we strongly believe to be wrong, then Aristotle (him again!) teaches us to check our premises. But when we do so, in this case we quickly see that while both premises may “feel” wrong to many physicians, in 2010 they are indeed correct. And therefore, so is the conclusion.

Premise 1 asserts that the physicians’ primary obligations are defined by a contract between themselves and society – or (let’s be frank) the state.

Until just a few years ago doctors could have legitimately objected to this assertion, since from the time of the ancient Greeks the physician’s prime obligation was defined by a direct covenant between themselves and the individual patient. And the precepts of medical ethics that governed the behavior of physicians were focused entirely on sanctifying that doctor-patient relationship. Those ethical precepts took precedence over everything else, like ethical precepts are meant to do, and at least in principle superseded all other authority down through the ages.

But alas, modern doctors don’t hold to such things anymore. And in recent years they have made their departure from their ancient ethical principles, and from the traditional doctor-patient relationship, fully explicit and quite formal.  They have done this to such an extent that they can no longer even aspire to the relatively minor sin of hypocrisy.  (Say what you will about hypocrites. At least they espouse firm principles which they can then violate.)

It is clear, of course, that doctors do not work for their patients anymore. Instead, they now work for the government and the government-regulated insurance companies. Still, this new kind of working relationship does not necessarily have to wreck medical ethics or the doctor-patient relationship, were it managed thoughtfully. But rather than figure out how to preserve their professional obligations within a new economic paradigm, the medical profession instead has chosen to issue a revised set of ethical precepts “for a new millennium,” aimed at adjusting what were supposed to have been (and had been, for the prior two millennia) timeless principles, in order to comport with the changing needs of society.  And so, of its own accord, the medical profession has abandoned its foundational ethical precepts, and thereby has abandoned the classic doctor-patient relationship – the very thing which defined the practice of medicine to be a professional endeavor in the first place. The medical profession has redefined itself by a new obligation to the changeable needs of the collective, instead of its old obligation to the expectations of the individual patients who place their lives in their hands.

In short, the profession of medicine has formally and voluntarily converted itself into a primarily contractual enterprise (i.e., as contractors for the government and government proxies), instead of a primarily ethical enterprise between themselves and their patients.

And so, whereas Premise 1 could have been easily cast aside just a few years ago (which is why it still “feels” wrong to a lot of doctors), today it is entirely legitimate.

Premise 2 recognizes certain life-ending activities to be legitimate medical services. Abortion, of course, has been legal in the U.S. for several decades. Since many of his readers will quibble with the assertion that abortion is life-ending, DrRich has decided to make Premise 2 somewhat forward looking, and so he has included the other two life-ending actions which will very likely become legitimate, approved “medical services” in the foreseeable future.

The medical profession not too many decades ago was quite clear on the ethical status of life-ending actions taken by physicians. Such actions in all their forms were proscribed. The Hippocratic Oath forbids taking actions intended to end life, and specifically calls out abortion as one of those  forbidden actions. But the Hippocratic Oath (like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) has become merely quaint in our modern, advanced society.

One of the reasons DrRich appreciated the Hippocratic Oath, when it was recited at his medical school graduation way back in a different era, was that it so clearly reflected non-religious standards. Yes, it blustered on about Asclepius and Hygieia and so on, but even the ancient Greeks didn’t really take their gods seriously. The Oath invoked the gods in the same manner in which, some assert, our founders invoked the Creator in the Declaration of Independence. Whether or not they were actually asserting that our foundational principles come directly from a being named God, they were making a very powerful statement. At the very least, they were saying, “We hold these principles to be so fundamental to the essence of man that to violate them would violate our very reason to exist. They are our bedrock, and to challenge them would be fatal to our enterprise. Here we draw our line in the sand, and we will defend this line to our deaths.”

The Hippocratic Oath was kind of like that.

The Hippocratic invocation against physicians ending innocent life was a clear line in the sand, and its purpose was a practical one rather than a religious one. For, in order to legally take an innocent life, we are required to say either that sometimes it is perfectly OK to kill an innocent human being, or that for some reason (because, for instance, at such-and-such a stage of fetal development the potential human is not yet viable) a particular innocent life is not really a human being after all. If it is sometimes perfectly OK to kill an innocent human being, our society is terminally corrupt. On the other hand, if society has the temerity to define “human being” in such a way as to meet its exigencies of the moment (beyond the most conservative possible definition suggested by nature, that is, the point where sperm and the egg combine to form a new life entity), it will necessarily be a fundamentally arbitrary definition. And once society undertakes to define human life arbitrarily, then there is nothing to stop society from changing that arbitrary definition as expediency requires.

Wise Hippocrates (DrRich suspects), foreseeing that mankind was likely to continue with its periodic spurts of genocidal indignation against this or that sub-human subset of our species, and seeing that it would be fatal to the medical profession to allow its special arts to be turned toward aiding such efforts, and realizing that it would be impossible, once physicians engaged in any small but legitimized taking of innocent life, to keep from escalating those activities if the needs of a society under duress demanded it, came to the conclusion that the profession required an absolute proscription here. This proscription was not a religious statement, but a practical and entirely secular one, based on a long and thoughtful observation of human nature, and aimed at keeping the medical profession focused on its real mission (caring for individual patients) rather than becoming an instrument of societal or political imperatives. And for over two thousand years the medical profession followed this line of reasoning.

The Hippocratic Oath has not been read aloud during medical school graduation ceremonies for decades now. The reason it was dropped has nothing to do with the usual claptrap you hear about not wanting to swear to Greek gods anymore. It has to do with the fact that doctors no longer subscribe to the content. It is no coincidence that the oath disappeared from the program in very short order during the 1970s, right after the Rowe v. Wade decision.  In any case, over the past few decades many physicians – possibly a majority – have quite gotten over their queasiness about taking actions that either a) end innocent life, or b) admit that society has the right to define arbitrarily what it means by “human life.” And the ones who still object to such actions are in dire risk of becoming the Amish bus drivers of healthcare.

So Premise 2 clearly expresses the actual default position of the medical profession today. While, for many physicians, it (like Premise 1) “feels” wrong, Premise 2 stands on its own merits.

Thus, like it or not, almost entirely due to the “evolution” of the profession of medicine itself rather than to any externally imposed changes, our syllogism appears entirely correct.

The implications are quite disturbing, and go far beyond the mere prospect of forcing pro-life doctors to either get with the program or get out. For what this syllogism really says is that the state will determine which medical actions are legitimate (or to be more specific, ethical), and that physicians being (through their own voluntary capitulation) mere contractors working at the pleasure of the state, are thus obligated to just shut up and sing. To say it more plainly, what is medically ethical is to be determined by the state, and individual doctors (except for the ones acting as collaborators and spokespersons for the state, whose job will be to make the ethical pronouncements seem medically legitimate), will have nothing to say about it.

When we view the history of mankind, we see that when the sovereign state is the entity which determines what is ethical, there is always hell to pay.

History teaches us that the state is sovereign not because it is inherently the most ethical entity within a social construct, or an ethical entity in any sense at all.  Sovereignty is determined by power, not ethics. Indeed, the most useful definition of “sovereign power” is: that power which has the ultimate ability to impose its will by the application of violence. The state is inherently a political and power-based entity, whose survival depends on manipulating the political landscape and the ability to threaten (or exert) adequate violence whenever required. Such a beast is inherently poor at ethics.

DrRich happens to believe that American society is essentially good, and constitutes the most ethical large and sustained social system that has yet been devised by mankind. Yet when pressed by economics, war, political strife, manifest destiny or a myriad of other stresses, even our government has behaved dismally and frankly unethically, and has done so on numerous occasions throughout its history. One merely needs to consider slavery, the Dred Scott decision, the Mexican-American war, the treatment of native Americans, World War II internment camps, and the Tuskegee study (DrRich ignores more recent history here to avoid stirring up still-fresh controversies) to get a taste of what kinds of government behavior we in our culture are capable of justifying to ourselves when under duress. (To put this in perspective, of course, other highly-developed Western cultures during the past century, where powerful sovereign authorities assumed the right to define ethical actions, performed atrocities that cause ours to pale in comparison. But this mitigation merely reinforces DrRich’s main point.)

As DrRich has been fond of pointing out on this blog, the need to find ways to ration American healthcare covertly has created extreme duress within our healthcare system, and within the government and the insurance companies responsible for administering it. And as a result covert rationing has already produced deeply and widely distributed behaviors that are harmful, inefficient, unfair and yes, frankly unethical, which affect every aspect of American healthcare.  Ceding to the state – desperate to ration healthcare in any manner it can get away with – the right to define what is medically ethical, and assigning to doctors the obligation of simply obeying, sounds to DrRich like a prescription for catastrophe.

And in this way, Progressive medical ethics has brought us to a very dangerous juncture.

Progressive Medical Ethics

DrRich | October 6th, 2010 - 12:01 pm

Podcast:

Having advanced his theory of Progressivism, and having shown how his theory explains certain behaviors on the part of Progressives that otherwise might be difficult to explain, DrRich now proposes to examine the question of the medical ethics of Progressivism.

This ought to be an important question to doctors, patients, and anyone who thinks they might someday become a patient. For, however else one might want to define “ethics,” for practical purposes a system of ethics fundamentally determines how one ought to act when one must act in the face of competing interests. And the healthcare system being rife with competing interests, ethical guidance is critical as we determine who is to get what, when and how.

Because ethicists generally attempt to devise a solution which balances, to some degree, the various competing interests (which all tend to have at least some merit), the field of ethics has become very complex to the uninitiated. Indeed, the arguments ethicists use to justify their positions are frequently so difficult to follow that professional ethicists all too often have been reduced to a virtual priesthood, dispensing their lofty wisdom from on-high.

But since truly ethical behavior requires more than merely following handed-down marching orders, and indeed, requires a certain amount of clarity as regards ethical precepts, DrRich has always considered the arcane work-product being offered up by most modern ethicists to be, well, unethical.

And this is where Progressivism, for all its faults, provides a breath of fresh air. For the chief ethical precept of Progressivism is an item of exquisite clarity, a bright, shining beacon that cuts through all the fog and fuzziness, and points the way.

To review, Progressivism (in DrRich’s formulation, at least) is the idea that the driving imperative of mankind is to devise the perfect society, that, indeed, the desired “progress” in Progressivism is the steady advancement toward that perfect society. The Progressive program is the natural result of the belief, most famously espoused by Aristotle, that man is inherently a social animal, an animal that naturally forms into complex societies; that individual men and women do not have much intrinsic worth as stand-alone units, but only as components of their larger group.

Furthermore, the Progressive program is to be driven by an intellectual elite, who will determine what does and does not advance the perfect society. This requirement for an elite leadership also derives from Aristotle, who recognized that most individuals within a society are incapable of perceiving the greater good, and if left to their own devices would return mankind to the ranks of the apes.

The Progressive program of steadily advancing toward a perfect society is much more than merely a desirable goal, it is an imperative; it is intrinsic to humanity itself. All other programs (libertarianism, conservatism, religions which emphasize the importance of individual salvation, &c.) are not only counterproductive to man’s true imperative, but are heretical.

And so Progressive ethics, if nothing else, are crystal clear: Anything that advances the Progressive program is ethical; anything that hinders it is unethical.

This general statement of ethics immediately implies two corollaries that more directly define what “right behavior” will look like:

Corollary 1) What is best for the collective is best for the individual. That is, since individual humans only achieve their humanity as a part of the greater whole, it follows that the chief obligation of any individual within a society is to act for the good of the collective.

Corollary 2) Since what is best for the collective is determined by the intellectual elite, it is the obligation of all individuals in a society to follow that elite.

With this summary of Progressive ethics, let us now turn to the question of medical ethics.

Classical medical ethics, from the time of Hippocrates, required the physician to always use his/her special training and special capacity for autonomous action for the benefit of the individual patient, and to place the needs of the individual patient above their personal needs. This requirement is what defined medicine as a classical profession.*

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* While the term “profession” has become diluted to include streetwalkers and football players, classically “the professions” were limited to physicians, lawyers and clergy, precisely because of this definition.
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But classical medical ethics cannot be permitted under a Progressive program. Allowing (much less encouraging) physicians to act autonomously for the good of their individual patients will necessarily conflict with that which is best for the collective. This is true because if the needs of the individual were to prevail, then patients who are lucky, smart or rich, and who have doctors who are particularly clever or aggressive, will get more than their fair share of the healthcare resources, leaving the collective wanting.

Accordingly, after years and years of dogged work, the Progressive agenda has succeeded very recently in changing the formal definition of medical ethics. In early 2002, a “new charter” of medical ethics was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. This new charter has since been formally endorsed by every major medical professional organization in the world. It charges physicians with the ethical obligation of achieving a fair distribution of healthcare resources. Medical students worldwide are now being taught that their main ethical obligation is to work for distributive justice, their obligation to work for the optimal benefit of their individual patients is a secondary concern, because of Corollary 1.

DrRich has described elsewhere how this new medical ethics places patients in great jeopardy, and wrecks medicine as a true profession. But old farts like DrRich (who prefers to think of himself as a “classic” physician), who still care about such things, will be gone in a few decades and can be safely ignored.

(For those who are interested, DrRich had the opportunity earlier this year to engage representatives of the American College of Physicians – chief authors of the New Ethics – in a public debate over medical ethics in this very space. DrRich was, at the end of the day, brushed off by the ACP, but not before eliciting a response from the Chair of the ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights. That response, in essence, was, “What is good for the collective is good for the individual, and any jack-dog knows this. Who the hell are you?” In other words she invoked Corollary 1. You can read all the details about the great Medical Ethics Smack Down in this series of articles.)

One might ask, what was the impetus for physicians to voluntarily change their time-honored ethical precepts?

They were coerced.

Significant coercion was being applied to doctors to place the interests of the third party payers – both insurance companies and the government – ahead of their duty to individual patients. The utter impotence of physicians in fighting off this coercion was the impetus for promulgating the new ethical precept (to society) in the first place. This fact was stated explicitly in a 1998 article by Hall and Berenson in the Annals of Internal Medicine (volume 128, p 395) which stated: “It is untenable for the medical profession to continue asserting an idealistic ethic that is contradicted so openly in clinical practice. . .,” and which called for a “new ethic” which was more consistent with how doctors were being forced to behave. Specifically, the proposed “new ethic” was a duty to the group.

This paper was an important impetus to formally changing professional ethics. When the new ethical standard istelf was finally published in 2002, its very first sentence began, “Physicians today are experiencing frustration as changes in the health care delivery systems in virtually all industrialized countries threaten the very nature and values of medical professionalism.”

In other words, physicians felt powerless to fight off the coercion – so in response they changed medical ethics to make it OK to cave in.

And to say it yet another way, physicians can now act under Corollary 2 with a clear conscience.

Accordingly, it is now become the physician’s ethical obligation – and not merely a legal or regulatory obligation – to follow to the letter the guidelines, processes, and procedures that are handed down to them from various government-established expert panels, when they are caring for their patients. Autonomous actions taken on behalf of individual patients is more than just discouraged, it is, simply, wrong.

Under our new program of medical ethics, then, doctors are absolved of much of the responsibility of clinical decision-making. As many of those decisions as possible – a continually increasing quantity of them as time goes by – will be determined centrally, at which point the doctor is ethically obligated to follow them.

DrRich continues to think this new program is harmful to patients and to the medical profession. He will bring up some specific issues in this regard in future posts.

DrRich Hosts Discussion on Sermo

DrRich | October 2nd, 2010 - 12:16 pm

DrRich is honored to have been invited, by popular demand (which means that both of his readers must have requested it), to host a discussion on Sermo. The discussion begins on Monday, October 4, and will run for four days or so.

Sermo is an online community for physicians, where doctors say stuff to each other they might not want to say to anyone else. DrRich has spent almost no time on Sermo, but he expects this is the place where modern doctors must discuss the secret-knowledge-type-stuff you all know we have but don’t want to reveal – things like all those alternative medicine cures that, if widely known, would put us all out of business, how to conspire with our ancient allies in the pharmaceutical industry to keep diseases chronic instead of curing them, and other bits of ancient and clandestine, handed-down wisdom we doctors are sworn to suppress for the sake of our guild, but which explain why we ourselves never get sick or die.

In any case, DrRich looks forward to hosting this discussion on Sermo, which he suspects will pertain more to the kinds of things covered on this blog than to medical arcana, and he hopes his physician readers will join him there (for otherwise he expects he will become very lonely). To his non-physician readers, DrRich pledges to report back here on anything that comes out of this discussion that might be of interest, as long as it would not require him to violate his secret and sacred oaths.