Health Care/Joan Retsinas

The Divine Doctor

For years patients have criticized physicians for playing God. No need to worry about that impersonation anymore. At last God is the doctor, regulating your health care via His minions -- a legion of televangelists and right-wing legislators who have scoured the Bible, and Charlton Heston movie clips, for the nuggets of Ecclesiastical Medicine.

So forget the wisdom as revealed in the Physicians' Desk Reference. Forget the pointy-headed dictums from the scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Don't look to see whether your physician graduated from Harvard, trained at Massachusetts General and is board-certified. Instead, give him a medical-ecclesiastical quiz, to see whether he or she (but probably a he) knows ecclesiastical medicine.

Non-ecclesiastical medicine spends lots of time and energy on sex -- how to enhance it, how to block pregnancy, how to guard against infection. How sacrilegious!

The God-Doctor abhors sex, except of course for procreation -- and that means procreation within a June-and-Ward-Cleaver, two-children-in-the-suburbs marriage. (Never mind that June may have popped valium to stay in her Stepford trance, and Ward may have downed nightly martinis.)

Ecclesiastical medicine has no interest in birth control. God-inspired doctors don't prescribe it -- not even to women struggling in developing countries to feed the children they have. These doctors don't talk about it. They tell patients about the joys of parenthood, or the joys of abstinence, depending on patients' marital status. If patients are gay, the physicians preach the moral correctness of Ward-and-Cleaver unions -- or the joys of abstinence. They don't urge condoms, because condoms accompany sex, and sex outside marriage is anathema -- and marriage among gays is another anathema.

As for "sex education," ecclesiastical doctors recognize its dangers. The more teenagers know about the devilish ways we can enjoy our bodies, the more they will want to go for it. Ignorance may or may not be bliss -- but it spurs virtue. So in school teenagers learn nothing about condoms, diaphragms or birth control pills. Of course, the incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases has risen among these abstinence-trained teenagers, but the problem is their weak licentious will. Maybe we should revive scarlet letters to deter the weak-willed.

Biblically-rooted medicine has no need for a vaccine that protects against the HIV virus. You get the virus from sex. The vaccine may encourage more of it.

The devil has worked through scientists to create this lure. As for abortion, moral doctors don't mention it. They don't even train to do it, so that the woman who is raped, or gets pregnant via incest, must bring to life a tangible reminder of the pain. But pain is good; more precisely, other people's pain is good for them.

And if some pregnant women discover, through routine tests, that their fetuses have severe deficits -- well, that brings more purifying angst. In the amoral not-so-long-ago, many of these women aborted. In this ascending era of moral medicine, we can do away with those tests -- moral medicine will forbid these abortions. The abortion-bound women can head for Europe, continent of promiscuity.

Fortunately for ecclesiastical medicine, moral-pharmacists have joined the fray. Those doctors who haven't seen the light -- who still consult the Physicians' Desk Reference rather than the Bible when they treat patients -- prescribe birth control pills and "morning after" pills. Women take these pills after intercourse to block pregnancy -- more deviltry to lure people into sex.

The forces of righteousness, though, are prevailing: Pharmacists now can, and do, refuse to fill these prescriptions on the grounds of "conscience." Even pharmacists employed by mega-chains like Walgreens and CVS have told women "no" (and, I assume, lectured these customers on the error of their ways).

The woman intent on sex and not intent on motherhood may soon have to pharmacist-shop, interviewing staff to see who will and who won't fill her prescription.

A few chains have fired employees (Eckerd Drugs in Denton, Texas, fired a pharmacist who turned away a rape victim seeking a morning-after pill); but chains risk running afoul of employees' "right-to-conscience." Two states -- South Dakota and Arkansas -- protect pharmacists who refuse to fill a prescription because of "conscience," and at least 10 other states are considering such protections. In fact, while most proposed "right to conscience" clauses stipulate that the pharmacist must refer the customer to another pharmacist (or another store), some zealots nix even referrals, as "passive participation" in evil.

God talks to lots of people: Educators have been re-writing science texts, making Darwin a footnote. Researchers have shunned stem cell research, whatever its potential benefit. So it is not surprising that health care providers are joining the ranks of the inspired. These heirs of Hippocrates are rewriting the tenets of medicine. We may all emerge sicker for it.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

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