An Overbroad View of Complicity

by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I explore the case of a pediatrician in Michigan who reportedly refused to meet with a six-day old patient, because the baby's parents are lesbians and this fact made the doctor uncomfortable.  Though Michigan apparently permits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the doctor appeared to have nonetheless been invoking a common "exception" to anti-discrimination principles, for situations in which adhering to anti-discrimination norms would violate the would-be discriminator's religious or conscience-based convictions.  In my column, I discuss the inappropriate breadth of a religious/conscience exception that would apply where adhering to the anti-discrimination principle would in no way implicate the practitioner in any religiously prohibited conduct.  In the case in question, it is hard to imagine any religious rule that might prohibit a doctor from treating an infant whose parents happen to be a same-sex couple.

I suggest in my column that what may actually be going on is that for religious or other reasons, the doctor in the case felt uncomfortable around the same-sex couple and therefore decided that she would prefer not to have to work with the family (and correspondingly have to interact with the couple).  Religion, then, may have become an excuse for avoiding uncomfortable interactions with people with whom she would prefer not to interact.

I would like to suggest here that even though I reject the doctor's homophobia and her rather bizarre decision not to treat a lesbian couple's baby, I can understand how someone holding a particular moral principle might feel inclined to avoid people who violate that moral principle.  In explaining my understanding, though, I want to highlight why I nonetheless regard it as dangerous and undesirable to act on the inclination in question.

As many regular readers of this blog know by now, I am an ethical vegan.  This means that for ethical reasons, I avoid consuming the products of animal exploitation, including the lacteal secretions of cows and other mammals (dairy), the ovulatory secretions of birds (eggs), and the flesh of the same and other sentient beings (meat, poultry, fish, etc.).  Because my commitment to veganism is ethical (rather than, say, allergy-based or taste-driven) in nature, my wish is that everyone in the world decides to become vegan as well and thereby spares billions of land and sea animals the torture and slaughter that they currently endure to service people's demand for all manner of animal products.  Though ethical veganism is, in important ways, distinct from religion, there is a similarity in the role that conscience plays in determining the sorts of decisions that one makes on a daily basis.

To provide an analogy to a doctor who refuses to perform an abortion, I would be very resistant to being in charge of distributing the flesh of baby chickens (typically 7 weeks old at slaughter) to a group of people dining at my school.  Similarly, I would be opposed to making an announcement to my students encouraging them to participate in a program in which they would prepare packages of slaughtered flesh and secretions for poor people to consume.  (I prefer to donate to A Well Fed World, which recognizes the links between compassion for poor people and compassion for animals and which also takes into account the role of animal agriculture in exacerbating global poverty and hunger).  By opting out in these situations, I would see myself as avoiding complicity in behavior that I consider unethical.

Where the pediatrician in Michigan takes things much further than I do is in leaving the whole matter of complicity behind and simply opting out of interactions that might be uncomfortable, if the discomfort is a result of her religious or moral convictions.  By analogy, I might feel uncomfortable when people around me choose to consume the products of what I know to be unfathomable cruelty to animals, whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Yet I do not believe I have a legitimate right to stop attending all work functions at which some of the people will be consuming non-vegan food.  To do so would represent shirking on my part, given that virtually every event at which faculty are expected to attend, and at which food is provided, serves non-vegan food (along with generously serving vegan options for me and other vegans in our community).  So long as no one is preparing non-vegan food for me, and so long as I am not personally consuming or serving non-vegan food, I do not think one can, as a practical matter, be part of a working community and simultaneously characterize as complicity one's attendance at an event at which other people are consuming non-vegan food.

And yet the doctor in the Michigan case arguably takes things even one step further than that.  She is not asked to be present, for instance, while same-sex couples engage in intimate acts that she views as religiously prohibited.  All she is expected to do is to treat her patient, a 6-day-old infant, and converse with the baby's lesbian parents about the baby's well-being and any medicines or other treatments that the baby might need.  The analogous behavior in my case would be if I were to refuse to interact with my non-vegan colleagues even during times at which no one is consuming any non-vegan products, simply because it makes me uncomfortable to know that at other times, my colleagues consume non-vegan products.  In addition to being completely anti-social and counterproductive to my thriving here at my job, such an approach would be utterly unrealistic.  I simply could not do any part of my job if I were to insist on interacting only with other vegans.

This last aspect of the problem exposes exactly what is so wrong about the Michigan pediatrician's decision not to treat the child of a lesbian couple.  It is the fact that--barring a law prohibiting such discrimination--this doctor can do exactly what she did without necessarily jeopardizing her medical practice or her ability to thrive in her work.  This is because she is targeting a minority population and can therefore still find plenty of people with whom to interact (and plenty of patients to treat) from the majority, even as she completely shuns a minority group.  The fact that she can do this helps disguise just how extreme her decision was, an extremity that is patently obvious when I analogize it to what I would have to do as an ethical vegan to be behaving comparably.

In reality, I would not want to terminate all of my interactions with non-vegans, even if it were not as plainly impractical and counterproductive to do so as it actually would be.  This is because I too was a non-vegan just nine years ago, and I am capable of appreciating the gifts that people have to bestow, even if they have not (yet) decided to leave the products of animal harm behind them.  I believe that my life is enriched by interacting with people of all different types, even if many of them do not see eye to eye with me about every fundamental moral feature of our lives.  I would hope that people like the Michigan pediatrician could appreciate this too and could understand that sometimes, uncomfortable conversations and interactions with people who differ significantly from ourselves can yield tremendous benefits and insights and make all of us grow as individuals.  When a pediatrician chooses instead to send away a lesbian couple and their 6-day-old baby, she accordingly does more than just deprive a family of her care; she deprives herself as well of the wisdom and insight that they would undoubtedly have been able to offer her.  It was her loss as much as it was theirs.