Ethics professors question morals behind doctors denying treatment to the unvaccinated

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the country, a growing number of health care professionals have taken an extreme stance that they claim will slow the spread: They say they will no longer treat the unvaccinated. While the basic premise of their decision may be legal, much of the medical profession is guided by ethics, and many experts disagree with the reasoning behind this decision.

Video Transcript

- A number of doctors and medical institutions in the US are denying care to those unvaccinated against COVID-19, even if they have life-threatening conditions.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG: So some doctors are saying they'll refuse treatment for people who choose not to get the shot.

- I understand people are free to choose, but to me, it's a problem when it affects other people.

ALYSSA BURGART: My name is Dr. Alyssa Burgart, and I am a bioethicist and anesthesiologist at Stanford University. When we talk about clinicians denying treatment to people who are unvaccinated, I think there's a false understanding that somehow, as a community, we have already done absolutely everything that we can to ensure people have access to vaccination and have access to accurate information about vaccination, and that's just not true. And so for me, it's really challenging when I hear someone say, well, I don't want to treat people who are unvaccinated, because they should have known better.

It's like, well, not necessarily. I think that, as a community, former President Trump was vaccinated in secret. You know, when you think about that and the power of that over an entire community, it's really important to recognize that the narratives about vaccination and about the safety of vaccination have been very politicized.

JONATHAN MORENO: Jonathan Moreno, I'm professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding when health care professionals decline to engage in practices that will enable them comfortably to take care of patients. I believe it is part of the obligation of health care professionals to, in this case, to either accept vaccination or to report to work with appropriate personal protective equipment. I do think, though, that also that doctors and nurses have a responsibility to communicate to the public to their patients, and the patients' families, and patients' friends, you know, what is appropriate. And what is appropriate right now is for them to seek the benefits of vaccination.

ALYSSA BURGART: Sometimes something feels right, but actually is morally misguided. And so when I hear a clinician saying, well, I'm just-- I'm angry at all these people who haven't been vaccinated, and I don't want to take care of them, well to me, what that says is that we need to reassess what is our role as caregivers.

JONATHAN MORENO: If we get into a situation in which you can pick and choose who you want to care for, the profession breaks down. The foundations of medicine required doctors to take care of patients. If they stop doing that, then we have really no profession.