Physician Autonomy vs Beneficence to the Patient and Plan B
When Dr Ward comes into the exam room Theresa explains to him that she was out at a party, had a few too many drinks, and ended up having unprotected sex with her boyfriend. She says she is worried about the possibility of being pregnant and wants the Plan B® pill.
“I don’t want to have a baby right now. I’m too young. I have to finish school,” she says. “And I don’t want to have to make a decision about an abortion. I want to just take this pill and move on.”
Dr Ward listens to Theresa’s concerns and then says, “I understand why you are here. I have always had a policy of not performing abortions, and I won't start now by prescribing the morning-after pill. You can make an appointment with me in a couple of weeks for a pregnancy test to find out if you are pregnant. If you really want the morning-after pill I can give you the card of a physician I know in Gardendale who will see you.”
“Gardendale?” Theresa says. “But Gardendale is 115 miles away. How will I get there without telling my parents why I am going? And how will I get there soon enough for the pill to work?”
I have written recently about Plan B and the anticipated decision by the FDA to allow over-the-counter (OTC) patient access (see postings of Jan 18 and Jan 23, 2005). The above scenario with two commentaries following, in the September 2004 issue of Virtual Mentor illuminates an important ethical issue that could be resolved by approval of OTC use. The issue involves the right of a physician not to engage in a treatment, which to the physician is morally wrong. This autonomous right of the physician has generally accepted ethical consensus. However, in certain situations, acting on this right may be non-beneficent for the patient by leading to the patient experiencing personally serious consequences. This conflict between the principle of professional autonomy and the professional duty to patient beneficence, in the case of Plan B could be mitigated by the FDA approval of the OTC procurement of this drug. ..Maurice.