Wednesday, October 23, 2013
In Syria, Doctors Risk Life and Juggle Ethics
Amidst the conflict and chaos in Syria, doctors are struggling to stay safe and organized in their efforts to effectively provide needed care. In fact, one of the most surprising and devastating aspects of the Syrian conflict has been the deliberate targeting of medical facilities and medical personnel, through which more than 100 doctors have been killed and over 600 doctors have been imprisoned. This has caused many doctors to flee, and the ones that remain must work amidst a failing healthcare system where nearly forty percent of the hospitals have been destroyed. They must literally risk their lives to meet the healthcare needs of their country.
After events such as bombings, the doctors are part of the first wave of support for the victims of the conflict, and as such are amongst the first informed about the details of the attack. This brings into light ethical issues that doctors must face when they learn about who was responsible for a bombing or chemical warfare attack and when they discover the brutal details of the attack. Many of the doctors, especially those working for international volunteer or humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, attempt to stay politically neutral, and therefore struggle with how to deal with the information they glean and who to share it with.
This past August, Doctors Without Borders got word from some of its partner hospitals of a significant number of patients entering hospitals with “neurotoxic symptoms,” such as would result from chemical warfare. This group of doctors struggled with how to deal with this information, as sharing it might place them in the political position of siding with the rebels and facing government retaliation, and in addition the information could be used by Western governments as grounds for military action, but ultimately the doctors decided to make a public statement. In this statement, they made sure to clarify that they could “neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” and asked for an independent investigation. However, shortly thereafter White House press secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of State John F. Kerry started citing these findings as enough evidence to warrant military intervention, just as the doctors had feared.
While publicizing these findings placed these doctors in a political position, making the knowledge public allowed this human rights issue to enter the international agenda and to become a major topic of discussion all over the world. Doctors have played a big role in bringing international attention to the human rights violations occurring in Syria, and arguably deserve more credit than they receive. In fact, it was through samples collected by a local Syrian doctor that the US was able to declare confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. As the doctors risk their lives to provide medical treatment, they also face the issue of politicizing themselves by sharing critical information that could potentially cause global conflict, but could also help to reduce the human rights issues occurring in Syria.