Ethics vs. Morals

According to the Oxford American Dictionary of Current English:

Ethics: n. pl. 1 the science of morals in human conduct 2a moral principles b a set of these (medical ethics)

Moral(s): n. 1a a moral lesson of a fable, story, event, etc. b a moral maxim or principle. 2 (in pl.) moral behavior.
Moral: adj. 1a concerned with goodness or badness of human character or behavior, or with the distinction between right and wrong. b concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behavior. 2a conforming to accepted standards of general conduct. b capable of moral action. 3 (of rights or duties, etc.) founded on moral law. 4a concerned with morals or ethics (moral philosophy). b (of a literary work, etc.) dealing with moral conduct. 5 concerned with or leading to a psychological effect associated with confidence in a right action (moral support; moral victory).

Physicians are held to the highest standards when it comes to morals, morality and ethics, and why shouldn’t they be? After all, people’s lives are often in their hands. However, when is it acceptable for a physician to act in accordance to their own morals, disregarding those of the patient or society? Answer: never. Nowhere in the aforementioned definitions does it say “of a personal nature” or “according to a personal views or standards.” Instead, words like “accepted standards of general conduct” and “accepted rules and standards of human behavior” are used.

If it is legal and deemed ethical by society and the experts in the medical field, no physician has the right to impose personal morals on the care of their patients. It is frightening how often this is an issue: end-of-life care, early pregnancy counseling, and birth control are just a few examples of areas where a physicians’ personal morals and belief systems can interfere with their counseling and treatment of a patient. A 2007 survey of physicians published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that up to 40 million Americans may be treated by a physician who does not believe him/herself obligated to provide full counseling of all treatment options if they are not in line with his/her personal morals.* In other words: if you are unwed and desire birth control but your doctor does not believe in premarital sex, you may endure some slut-shaming instead of contraception counseling.

My morals and personal beliefs do not belong in my clinic, operating room, or hospital and certainly not in my patient’s chart amongst documentation of how I have counseled her on her options — ALL of her options, as long as they are legal and medically sound.

Be sure to ask your doctor the tough questions to ensure unbiased counseling of all medical treatment options.

Additional reading from the New England Journal of Medicine