Do No Harm. . .To Freedom?

During this 117th Congressional Session, certain Members of Congress reintroduced the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, S. 393), which would, among other provisions, amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Adoption of this bill would release one of the final restraints on abuse in health care, which from ancient times has been philosophically based on the principle to “do no harm”—supposedly even now. 

With legal prohibition of this particular form of discrimination, the autonomy of medical professionals will grow weaker, as a denial to perform sex reassignment surgery, transgender hormone therapy, procedures destructive to unborn life, or related interventions will constitute unjust discrimination against the patient requesting treatment. 

How did we get here? The principle to “do no harm” has been philosophically altered to “do no harm to freedom.” More accurately, “do no harm to personal choice,” since “detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth” returns an empty shell of freedom in the form of personal choice, as Pope John Paul II’s insight would lead us to realize in Veritatis Splendor.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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A philosophical analysis of recent centuries will reveal that this degeneration of health care from “do no harm” to “do no harm to personal choice” has long been due. Philosophically speaking, postmodernism is the age in which we live. Freedom is the highest value, the water in which we swim. It is no surprise that, as humanity inflates personal freedom, room for God runs thin.

This is why the 19th– and 20th-century philosophers Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault—who viewed human freedom and divine freedom as mutually exclusive—necessarily replaced God with their freedom-centered philosophies, as noted by Bishop Robert Barron. But John Paul II correctly retorted in the face of these philosophies, in Veritatis Splendor, “human freedom and God’s law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other. The follower of Christ knows that his vocation is to freedom.” That is, an authentic freedom that is true to reality. 

Why get philosophical? Because these philosophies diagnose the disastrous direction of health care and explain why it is suddenly permissible to define one’s own gender, invent one’s own morality, and get away with calling a fetus a clump of cells.

The existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom “man is free, man is freedom,” (in his Existentialism is a Humanism) holds that anyone is able to decide what “he wills himself to be.” Through sheer will, one can be whatever one wants. For Michel Foucault, language is used by those in power to establish conventions to remain in power. This may seem abstract, but Foucault’s theory has justified the very words “sex stereotype” that we find in Congress’s proposed Equality Act.

Many secular Americans perceive the Church as an authority figure who has forced the binary gender convention (male and female) on society to keep itself in power. Unsurprisingly similar to Foucault, Sartre believes in no “given and immutable human nature” that would justify humanity as inherently male and female, now or into the future (Existentialism is a Humanism).

In case these philosophers seem too distant, we have only to listen to the voices in the streets to hear their echoes. Though many will admit that freedom is not absolute in theory, in practice many treat freedom as if it were inviolable. “It’s my choice.” “Who are you to tell me what to do with my body?” With the assertion of the will comes an absolute claim about reality, to define truth and morality as one deems.

If we continue on this philosophical track, the one that has led U.S. lawmakers to consider passing the Equality Act, we will end in inequality, not equality. 

Allowing virtually absolute freedom to reign unchecked by truth is a path to inequality and a “will to power” culture, because in a world of total license the most powerful voice always wins. All must assert their own will, in Nietzschean style, to defend the personal identity that they created through the will. When two asserting wills come into contact, they clash like swords to defend the identity of their bearer.

As this pertains to medicine, if sex reassignment surgery, transgender hormone therapy, and abortion are permissible, what procedures are not permissible under the guise of “health care”? What constitutes too much harm to no longer be considered the healing duty of physicians and nurses? “If God does not exist, everything is permissible,” writes Sartre in Existentialism is a Humanism, establishing the foundation of his atheistic existentialism.

Granted, most Americans, no matter their location on the political spectrum, do not subscribe to the radical-freedom agenda of these philosophers. Both conservatives and liberals agree that important issues require an arbiter, someone to make a judgment on the issue and to legislate on the proper courses of action. The arbiter agreed upon by both sides is the government, despite disagreements on how much power of arbitration the government should have in the realms of health care, societal reform, and education. 

With Congress’s consideration of the Equality Act, it cannot be denied that the government is legislating on health care, even if only indirectly. The government’s proper role in the realm of health care is to defend the inherent rights of both parties—medical professionals and patients. Providers possess the rights to heal according to good conscience and sound ethical principles, and patients possess the rights to access and receive quality, affordable treatment. Neither side should have all the say, and if such an imbalance is imminent, the government must reinstate balance and protect a system conducive to the processes of healing.

The passing of the Equality Act would attenuate the rights of medical professionals, threatening an imbalance that may be doomed to stay. Neither of the two parties would win. Medical professionals would lose their authority to do no harm, occasionally being required to violate their conscience in performing an ethically ambiguous, scientifically ungrounded procedure on their patients. All to do no harm to personal choice. 

The long-standing “do no harm” days of health care seem to be ending. The current philosophy behind health care has enshrined personal choice above bodily and mental health. Freedom ought to be defended and upheld, but not as an “absolute,” not as an inviolable “source of values,” and not unhinged from truth, wrote John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor

Let freedom reign at all costs, even if such freedom does grave harm? That’s not democracy, that’s tyranny—one I don’t want to live through. Or has it already begun?

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Brady Stiller

    Brady Stiller is a Fellow at the Christ Medicus Foundation (CMF). He studied Biological Sciences and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and he is currently pursuing a Master of Nonprofit Administration degree from the same institution.

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