One of the odder concepts out there is “patient guilt.” It is a term for the remorse some people feel when going to a doctor. The doctor walks in, he asks how she’s doing, and like a sinner at confession, she has the urge to whitewash her problems, to downplay them for the judge. She’s ashamed to ask for help—she, a lowly nobody—from the great man in white, the medical professional.
It’s indicative of an almost spiritual reverence for the world of medicine today. Rather than view doctors as people we hire to fix our health, who work for us, we have this odd desire to please them, to gain their approval. We willingly offer up half of a workday to wait in line with sick people when previous generations would have received a house visit. At the words, “the doctor will see you,” we jump to our feet and make our way into the holy place, led by an acolyte in scrubs. And often, this pilgrimaging is just for a “well-check visit,” to receive our monthly assurance of pardon, to pay an indulgence and be told that we are, indeed, clean.
Tennessee’s post-Roe trigger law went into effect this week. Set to begin 30 days after the overturn of Roe v. Wade, the Human Life Protection Act was passed in 2019 and bans all abortions in the state, “except in situations where the abortion is necessary to prevent the death of pregnant women or prevent serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of major bodily function”—that is, in the treatment of an ectopic pregnancy. The law enforces the ban by charging the doctor who performs an abortion with a Class C felony in the state of Tennessee. This could mean anywhere from three to 15 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. It is the same punishment bracket as armed burglary and not, it should be noted, that for murder. In fact, on these grounds we could even say the law is quite mild.
But of course, all the usual suspects are up in arms. They are upset because the law places the burden of proof on the doctor to justify performing the abortion if brought to court, rather than on the state. Naturally, if you want abortions on demand and without questions, you’re upset about any ban—never mind one with real consequences. Still, it is not only the ban but the idea that the licensed professional performing the abortion should have to justify it that has really twisted some knickers. And it’s not hard to see why.
It wasn’t so long ago that we were called murderers for leaving the house without KN-95 masks over our noses and mouths. What Covid demonstrated, ad nauseum, was that in addition to being nagging rulemongers, a certain demographic of Americans have a holy reverence for any word from on medical high. It is not true that such people worshiped all doctors, since there was plenty of disagreement within the medical profession, but rather they bowed to the self-assured medical establishment, among whom there was rigid uniformity. The only reason 2020, 2021, and even the beginning of 2022 were the way they were was because a significant portion of the population was, and is, desperate for its lifestyle to be approved by the white coats.
They are also eager for intervention by the white coats, an important corollary. In the doctor’s office, and in medicine in general, we have come to expect intervention as the norm. Patients demand tangible solutions; the impetus in the medical profession today is on the physician to prescribe something, even if merely preventative. The very fact of well-check visits is proof of this preference for action over inaction, albeit an ironic one when we return home from two hours of fluorescents and feverish compatriots to discover, the next morning, we’ve come down with a cold. (Something has intervened here, but it was not for the sake of health.)
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Patients wanted a cure for chronic unhappiness, and rather than recommend a pastor, a man named Klaus Schmiegel invented Prozac, which we now know was most likely a placebo. Women wanted free love without children, Margaret Sanger answered, and now the business of not being born is an established branch of the science of healing. In every case, the patient was so anxious for the happy little pill that would take all her problems away, she didn’t stop to think if the intervention was needed or even possible. If the doctor is omniscient, surely he is also omnipotent?
But if we’re going to interrupt the delicate balance of nature, we should not do so lightly. It goes without saying that sickness requires treatment, but does a headache require morphine? Such a solution would be wildly out of scale, but if the doctor says so, would we not believe? Medicine is an important skill—vital, even. We need doctors almost as much as we need pastors. But to whom much is given, much is required. The burden of proof should always be on the doctor to justify his intervention, and not only in the treatment of ectopic pregnancies. It’s his job. At least one human’s life is on the line every time; in some cases, two are.
Tennessee’s new trigger law is good. It is good because it bans abortions, and it is good because it is weighted heavily toward the patient—both patients—rather than the doctor. We should consider next how we might change other laws, around drugs, public health, and experimental interventions, to do the same.