No reason to scold doctors

Posted on August 21, 2008 in Health Debates – opinion/editorial – No reason to scold doctors
August 20, 2008

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association, Health Minister Tony Clement took it upon himself this week to accuse doctors of failing to look out for the interests of drug addicts. Even if his words had not been delivered the same week that his Conservative Party distributed advertisements pledging to keep “junkies” off the streets and away from children and families, his audience would have had reason to take offence.

His opposition to Insite is already well known; Mr. Clement could have skipped the subject of Vancouver’s supervised-injection facility entirely. Instead, he adopted a more strident position than ever before — questioning the ethics of doctors who support the site. “Is it ethical for health-care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance, or purity or potency — drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed?” he demanded. “The supervised-injection site undercuts the ethic of medical practice and sets a debilitating example for all physicians and nurses, both present and future in Canada.”

Not himself a doctor, Mr. Clement’s scolding would have been presumptuous under any circumstances. But it was all the more dubious, because of the analogy he went on to draw. “Imagine for a moment a doctor who has a patient with a serious but treatable case of cancer,” he said. “Would it be ethical for that doctor to give that woman morphine and otherwise make her comfortable until she died of her disease, rather than offer the patient treatment toward full recovery?”

As is always the case when he attempts to present harm reduction and rehabilitation as mutually exclusive options, Mr. Clement neglected to mention that Insite does not divert addicts from treatment. On the contrary, it actively encourages them to seek it. In addition to the reams of peer-reviewed research that Mr. Clement continues to dismiss, his own comparatively skeptical advisory panel acknowledged that such encouragement has led to increased use of rehabilitation facilities.

If Mr. Clement believes that long-term treatment is underfunded, as he spent much of his speech arguing, then his government should increase funding for it. But that does not justify attacking the morals of medical professionals who believe, with ample research to support them, that facilities such as Insite are life-saving tools in treating the disease of drug addiction. As his own party distributes literature dehumanizing that disease’s sufferers, Mr. Clement is in no position to deliver lectures on compassion.

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