From Sts. Cosmas & Damian to 40 Days for Life: Nothing New Under the Sun

Like Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Catholic physicians and nurses in the United States are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to practice according to faithful morals and ethics without running afoul of secular “standards of care” in the exercise of their professions.

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In the third century A.D., in the region of Cilicia (modern-day Turkey and Syria), two twin physicians raised in the Christian faith became known for their skillful practice of medicine. Despite their renown as successful physicians, they did not accept payment for their services (and were known as the “silver-less ones”), choosing instead to exercise their healing profession among rich and poor alike as an expression of their love for Our Lord.

As word spread of their selfless ministry in the name of Christ, the Roman emperor Diocletian had the twins arrested as part of a widespread religious persecution. After the brothers refused Diocletian’s offer to spare their lives in return for a renouncement of their faith, they were sentenced to be executed.

Legend has it that several efforts to put them to death were miraculously thwarted: they escaped after being thrown bound into the sea; flames did not harm them during an attempt to burn them at the stake; and attempts at flogging failed when the whips did not strike them. Frustrated by the failed attempts at execution, the emperor ordered them to be beheaded, sealing their eternal place among the martyrs in the Church Triumphant. Sts. Cosmas and Damian, whom the Church celebrates with a feast day on September 26th (September 27th on the old calendar), are the patron saints of physicians, pharmacists, and midwives.

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Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and we see echoes of a resurgent hostility toward time-honored beliefs and Hippocratic ethics in the practice of medicine. Catholic physicians and nurses in the United States are finding it increasingly difficult to continue to practice according to faithful morals and ethics without running afoul of secular “standards of care” in the exercise of their professions. No subjects illustrate the conflict between Christian ethics and secular humanist values more starkly than issues of sexuality and procreation, beginning with abortion.

Whereas in times past there prevailed a tolerance of conscience rights within medical institutions toward clinicians not wishing to lend support—directly or indirectly—for abortion, such pluralism has become vanishingly absent within the halls of the profession, which has succumbed to the rabid polarization consuming the culture at large in the present moment.

The outspoken rhetoric from the leadership of prominent medical institutions in support of unrestricted abortion has forestalled any debate among the medical community on the matter of the physician’s duty toward unborn human life. Instead, medical thought leaders have chosen to erase segments of the Hippocratic Oath which they find disagreeable and instead ally themselves with the deeply ideological viewpoint that vouchsafes “reproductive rights” as a consummate good demanding the support of the medical community without conditions. Specialty societies such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which returned the legislation of abortion back to the states. 

Now stripped of the legal cover provided by the now-overturned Roe v. Wade, ACOG and other medical societies are wielding their vaunted “expert” opinions as cover for the bold claim that “abortion is healthcare.” Without nuance, these medical institutions assert that any restriction on abortion imperils the health and well-being of women everywhere, without any acknowledgement of the human status of the unborn child. Furthermore, this newer tactic that professes abortion as an unqualified good also neglects to consider the very real dangers and harms—physical, mental, and spiritual—to the women they claim to champion. 

In their quest to advocate for unbridled abortion rights, medical specialty societies have also thrown body blows against their own constituents’ rights of conscience. One such example is an amicus brief filed in September 2020 against a rule to defend the conscience rights of healthcare workers (New York v. U.S. HHS) in which ACOG, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics—among others—argued that the “welfare of the patient (beneficence) is central to all considerations in the patient-physician relationship,” while failing to acknowledge the existence of alternative opinions about what professional actions best promote the welfare of the patient. In their quest to advocate for unbridled abortion rights, medical specialty societies have also thrown body blows against their own constituents’ rights of conscience. Tweet This

The hubris of professional advocacy organizations that make such pronouncements in the name of the thousands of constituent physicians belonging to their specialty societies connotes a false sense of general consensus among medical professionals regarding support for the killing of the unborn. 

Like their peers in specialty society leadership, legacy medical publications do their part to present a monolithic assent to the abortion regime among professionals. A review of the contents of journals such as JAMA and New England Journal of Medicine illustrates the uniformity of opinion among editors on this contentious moral matter. These publications abandon their duty to open a forum for vigorous discussion and exchange of ideas among medical professionals of varying opinions. In the case of the issue of abortion, negligence to permit airing of the case against the practice effectively makes pariahs of pro-life physicians whose views are deemed to deviate from the currently “acceptable” standard of medical care. 

Recalling the arduous trials of Sts. Cosmas and Damian which cost them their lives, Christian physicians of today do not have “red martyrdom” at the forefront of their minds as they ply the treacherous ethical waters of modern medical practice. While they may not face death for their beliefs, several medical professionals have already been subject to the “white martyrdom” of loss of employment for practicing according to pro-life principles.

Others, from physicians to pharmacists, have launched legal defenses to protect their rights of conscience from coercive pro-abortion legislation and mandates. The threat of regulatory and professional persecution has a chilling effect on Catholic health professionals everywhere, causing many to “keep their heads down” and preventing them from speaking up on practice matters that contradict their deeply held religious beliefs.

How might faithful Catholic medical professionals confront the challenges to their pro-life convictions by leaders of mainstream medical associations, media, and licensing bodies? One way to begin is by reflecting on the lives of their forebears in faith and medicine—such as Sts. Cosmas and Damian—who remained unflinchingly steadfast to their calling to manifest their love of Christ to all through the persistent practice of their healing vocation.

For today’s healers, to subject oneself to possible financial and professional loss requires a great deal of courage, which is often strengthened by joining in fellowship with others who are walking the same lonesome road. Such fellowship may be found through membership in organizations of faithful Catholic professionals such as the Catholic Medical Association or the National Association of Catholic Nurses, or by providing personal mentorship to future Catholic medical professionals through the CMA’s ministry Novus Medicus

Another powerful way Christians are called to support one another is through mutual prayer, fasting, and outreach. A perennial opportunity to witness to the value of the lives of unborn children and their expectant mothers is by supporting 40 Days for Life, whose fall campaign across the country begins tomorrow (September 27th). Since its first coordinated campaign in 2007, 40 Days for Life has expanded to promote a culture of life in over 1,000 cities across 63 countries. All people who wish to show support for the countless victims of abortion—the unborn, their mothers, and healthcare professionals caught up in the lies of the abortion industry—are invited to find a local vigil to attend.

As members of the Church Militant, we are living in the midst of an intense spiritual battle. Nowhere is this highlighted more profoundly than in the struggle for the protection of the unborn, the compassionate support for their expectant mothers and fathers, and the conversion-of-heart of those who perform or support abortion. No matter our vocation or station in life, let us join together in prayer and fasting to ask for mercy on our nation as we strive to bring about a renewed culture of life in our day.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian, pray for us.
Jesus, I trust in You.


  • James O. Breen, M.D.

    Dr. James O. Breen is a family physician and faculty member in graduate medical education in Fort Myers, Florida. Dr. Breen is a member of the Southwest Florida Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.

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