Doctors save our lives, let’s protect their free speech

Disturbing changes to the medical profession’s code of conduct could soon see doctors facing disciplinary action, or even the loss of their licence to practise, for speaking their mind on issues at the forefront of their profession and wider public debate.

This unprecedented attempt by the chief medical regulator, AHPRA, to gag doctors in their professional and private lives poses a twin threat to freedom of speech and the progress of medical science more broadly. 

Under a section titled ‘Professionalism’, the draft code warns doctors to “consider the effect” of their comments and actions outside of work on the “professional standing [and] reputation of the profession.” Speech or conduct which “undermines community trust in the profession” – an impossibly vague standard, left wholly undefined – could be met with disciplinary action by the medical regulator, possibly culminating in deregistration.

Doctors will be under a positive obligation to acknowledge if their private views and opinions deviate from the “generally accepted views” of the profession – including online – or again, risk professional sanction. 

You can guarantee this will censor and intimidate doctors. One’s livelihood is a lot to lose over an opinion.

AHPRA’s recent attempts to penalise and censor doctors who dare to confront the politically correct orthodoxy of our time offers a clue about the type of speech the regulator is seeking to bring to heel.

A Queensland GP named Dr Van Gend is, under the current Code of Conduct – that is, without these new restrictions on speech – facing disciplinary proceedings because he retweeted without comment two tweets by a conservative politician.  One was about the consequences of same sex marriage, the other about transgenderism.  Neither article attacked a particular person.  Rather, they challenged the orthodoxy of the underlying ideas of these policies.   In any event, he should be entitled to an opinion, just as any other citizen. 

He faces disciplinary consequences that could be enough to end his right to practice medicine. Even if he escapes formal sanction, he’ll still face the legal expenses and lost work time associated with defending his professional reputation – a high price, by any measure, for speaking one’s mind.

Dr Pansy Lai, a doctor based in Sydney, faced a vicious campaign to be de-registered by same-sex marriage campaigners, after appearing in a No campaign video. The Yes campaign is entitled to have members of the community express their opinion, but this does not mean that people opposed to those views should be professionally reprimanded, particularly when their opinions do not relate to their ability to competently practise medicine.

What gives these provisions teeth is the sheer breadth of issues on which AHPRA has already decided the “generally accepted views”.  We should ask – decided by whom, and how?

The medical regulator’s textbook leftist stance on, for example, abortion, same sex marriage and gender dysphoria mean that doctors will have to put their careers on the line before speaking out on these important matters at the forefront of public debate.  Most people will decide that having an opinion just isn’t work the hassle.

While gagging doctors from contributing to public debate is wrong in principle, it’s also at odds with the culture of a profession whose ethic must be one of questioning, of experimentation with new ideas, and of creative problem solving. 

On topics such as gender dysphoria, for example, doctors could be stripped of their right to practice for questioning the merits of giving children a cocktail of puberty blockers and hormone medicines as a prelude to sex change surgery.

This should be controversial – there is little understanding about the effect of these processes on the developing brain, and there are moral issues arising from allowing children to consent to procedures with such serious consequences.

Recent medical history offers a salutary reminder of just how important the scientific method of questioning and testing hypotheses is to scientific progress. Only half a century ago, eugenics and the use of lobotomies were firmly part of the medical consensus. Both are now thoroughly discredited.  It was the work of outspoken outsiders in the profession which shifted scientific opinion. 

If we allow political correctness to stifle medical enquiry, we deprive our society of the medical advances that are the fruit of the enquiring minds of the profession.

The reality is that if we don’t have it, we lose our ability to reason, to solve problems and to think.  That’s the risk that we run when regulators like AHPRA start playing social engineer.