When Medicine Becomes Politicised

Medicine, like science, is one of those things that we expect to be above partisan politics. We hope that they will remain neutral and independent, and stay out of advocacy work, dealing instead with their areas of expertise. Yet quite often, of late, we see these bodies acting as lobby groups.

For example, we often see spokespersons for groups like the Australian Medical Association appearing in the media, speaking out on controversial social issues. Increasingly a group like this is becoming yet another left-of-centre advocacy group.

Bioethicist Michael Cook takes up this issue in today’s Australian (May 1, 2007). He argues that the politicisation of medicine is not good news, and is certainly not in the national interest. He begins this way:

“One of the world’s most respected medical journals, The Lancet, has called for regime change in a once-great country whose health policies are succumbing to ‘the politics of fear and neglect’ and ‘profound intolerance’. Its target? Zimbabwe? Pakistan? Kazakhstan? No, The Lancet was referring to Australia and the Howard Government. In an editorial which might have been ghost-written by Mark Latham in a particularly bilious mood, the journal called upon voters to let shine ‘a new enlightenment to Australian health and medical science’.”

He explains: “Earlier this month its editor Richard Horton visited Sydney. He must have briefed himself on the state of Australian science. The editorial, for instance, quotes ‘the respected scientist Ian Lowe’ on the ‘extraordinary lengths’ that the Government had taken to ‘silence independent opinion within the research community’. Lowe is a respected scientist, but failing to mention his position as president of the Australian Conservation Foundation to Lancet readers is like describing Peter Garrett as a respected rock star, not as a Labor politician and a former president of the ACF. “

Cook makes it clear that he is far from a Coalition supporter. He is aware of healthcare shortcomings both here and in the US. But he is concerned about the rise of advocacy science and the leftward direction of some of our prestigious medical journals. Indeed, “with the election of conservative governments in both the US and Australia, neurons in editorialists’ cerebellums started to misfire madly. Not only The Lancet, but also the British Medical Journal and Nature and the US-based New England Journal of Medicine, The Journal of the American Medical Association and Science have become increasingly hostile towards the George W. Bush administration.”

But scientific bodies should not be taking on partisan advocacy roles. People “naively expect that the white-coated gods of science speak truth to power in words uncontaminated by ideological prejudice. No longer. The journals have more or less squarely allied themselves with the liberal side in America’s culture wars over abortion rights, therapeutic cloning, sex education, AIDS policies and population control. It has become nearly impossible for dissident scientists to get papers published in these sensitive areas because – they claim – independent opinions are silenced. The new field of stem cell research offers the most egregious example.”

Some recent frauds over stem-cell research and cloning are good cases in point. For example, “Science rushed into print two stunning articles about the creation of the world’s first human therapeutic clones and stem cell lines. It was a brilliant coup that vindicated its editorial opposition to Bush’s ethical and scientific caution. And it turned out to be the worst fraud of the past hundred years, the handiwork of a publicity-hungry South Korean researcher who knew that Western journals were equally hungry to prove their case.”

“How the editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, responded to this humiliating turn of events is instructive. Like any beleaguered politician, he appointed his mates to an investigating committee: three editors at Science, one former editor at Science, and two of the most passionate advocates of embryonic stem cell science in the US. It was hard to imagine a team less likely to ask tough questions. Had editorial misgivings been steamrollered because of his partisan commitment to embryo research? We will never know.”

Concludes Cook, “The real victims of a growth in political advocacy will be the journals themselves. With rising levels of fraud and self-serving commercialism in the ivory towers of academe, the credibility of leading journals is a more valuable asset than ever before. Politicking editorials can only tarnish this.”

Unfortunately most aspects of life are being politicised these days. And it is usually the left side of politics that is involved in the activism. All the more reasons for the blogosphere to exist and give air to alternative points of view.


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