Religion and Medicine

The links between religion and medicine began long ago, back in the
days when doctors pledged, through the Hippocratic Oarth, ‘to swear by
Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the
gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill
according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant…’
The idea of doctors pledging to practice medicine ethically is perhaps
somewhat surprising to a modern day reader, yet in the age of
Hippocrates religion and medicine were inseperable. Today however U.K
doctors are more inclined to hail The General Medical Council (GMC)
than ‘all the gods and goddesses.’ Yet links between religion and
medicine remain, this is perhaps a hangover from the days before the
age of Enlightenment and the reformation, when the Roman Catholic
Church influenced every aspect of life from birth to death.

The influence of religion on medicine can be both beneficial and
harmful. This is seen specifically by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious
group who whilst accepting treatment refuse blood transfusions under
the grounds that some Bible passages, demand that man should obstain
from ‘abstain from…fornication, from what is strangled and from
blood.’ This longstanding stance has frequently made headlines. In
2007 Emma Gough a 22-year-old mother of twins died hours after giving
birth due to blood loss. Emma and her husband Anthony, both Jehovah’s
witnesses, refused to let doctors perform a blood transfusion when the
need arose after complications with the birth set in. Conversely, by
Jehovahs Witnesses maintaining this stance some advancements in
medicine have been made, as practicing medics have been forced to
discover alternatives and as a result other patients have also
benefited. However, the mortality rate of this religious group may
often exceed those of other patients, as some medical conditions can
not be eased, or cured, without blood transfusions. Within the medical
field of obstetrics this is highly evident, as pregnant Jehovah’s
Witnesses are 6 times more at risk of maternal death, as any woman can
suffer Major obstetric haemorrhage during pregnancy and this can only
be overcome by perfroming a blood tranfussion.

Ever heard the saying ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of
cure’? In medicine this is doubly true and underscores the value of
Public Health, a field of medicine which includes disease prevention
and informs our understanding of disease whilst raising public health
awareness. This is another area where religion and medicine can
sometime disagree, an issue which particularly effects the human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This disease, upon infection, weakens
the immune and eventually causes Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome
(Aids) which according to the UNAids 2008 report lead to the death of
2 million adults and 0.27 million childen in 2007 alone. To some, the
key to preventing this disease is better sex-education and the use of
condoms, something the Catholic faith is set against. The religion’s
spiritual leader, Pope Benedict Benedict XVI, has been quoted as
saying ‘The spread of HIV and Aids in Africa should be tackled through
fidelity and abstinence and not by condoms,’ and has gone as far to
suggest that relgion is the failsafe way of preventing the disease not
contraseption. With Aids deaths highest in Africa, where much of the
population is Catholic, such comments worsen an already deadly
situation. However The UNAids 2008 report on the global Aids epidemic
have observed changes in sexual behaviour which have lead to a decline
in the number of new HIV infections. With some of the findings
including an ‘increasing condom use among young people with multiple
partners and encouraging signs that young people are waiting longer to
have sexual intercourse in some of the most heavily affected
countries,’ it appears that religion’s negative effect on medicine has
ceased to take hold in some cases.

Prayer is a common reaction to ill health and this is another hotly
debated topic where the discussion over religion’s effects on medicine
is concerned. However a conclusive line on whether prayer has a
postive or negative effect on medicine is impossible, as studies into
the matter have suggested. A recent review in 2009 of available
studies on the effect of prayer on ill health concluded that most
‘studies show no significant differences in the health outcomes of
patients who were allocated to be prayed for and those who allocated
to the other group.’ On the other hand the report also suggested that
religious commitment promotes certain positive behaviours in the
faithful, and is ‘shown to help protect children from drug abuse,
alcohol abuse, and suicide.’ Moreover some have suggested that ‘the
elderly who live faithful lives tend to live longer.’

Considering the historical relationship between religion and medicine,
even in modern day Britain, it is difficult to completely ignore the
effects religion has on medicine. In the age of Doctor Shipmans it is
interesting to consider that Hippocrates, in a time where doctors were
god-like, thought it important that medical professionals ought to
hold themselves accountable not just to each other but to a higher
power. Perhaps the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.


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