Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Doctor, policeman and heart attack victim

There are three individuals stranded on an island, without radios and with no other way to contact the rest of the world and no one knows they are stranded on this island. The first individual is a doctor, and he has all the tools he needs for his practice with him. The second individual is a policeman, he has a gun, and all the other accoutrements of police work. The third individual is a heart attack victim.

Now, the heart attack victim is in a life and death emergency. The heart attack victim and the doctor have a long history of ill will with the doctor having been the victim of repeated threats and attempts on his life by the now heart attack victim. As a consequence, the doctor refuses to care for the heart attack victim and save his life. At this point, the police officer decides he must intervene: after all, if the doctor does nothing, the heart attack victim will die and this is almost tantamount to murder since the doctor has the capability to save the man's life but is refusing to act.

First, the polieman threatens to imprison the doctor if the heart attack victim dies. The doctor is unmoved by this threat. So, the policeman tasers the doctor in an attempt to force him to treat the heart attack victim... only a few minutes are left until the victim is unrecoverable. Finally, the policeman draws his pistol and places it to the doctor's head and threatens to shoot him if he will not treat the heart attack victim. The doctor still refuses.

Now, if the policeman fires, both men will die. If the policeman does not fire, the heart attack victim will die but the doctor will have gotten away with what the policeman sees as negligent homocide. After the heart attack victim dies, the policeman can place the doctor in handcuffs and imprison him, but to what avail? This will not bring back the heart attack victim to life.

I provide this illustration in order to ask the following question: Is the threat or use of violence against a doctor who refuses medical service to someone who is experiencing a medical emergency morally justified? Does it matter what reasons the doctor has for refusing (no reason, avoidance of legal liability, inability of victim of medical emergency to pay, etc.)? Note that I am not asking whether it is good or bad for a doctor to refuse medical care in this or that situation. Rather, I am asking is the threat or use of violence against a doctor justified in a situation where he or she is refusing medical care to someone in a medical emergency?

Please justify your answer either way.

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