Medicine is not a field free of conflict. When we speak of doctors and medics working in areas of crisis and unrest, this not only remains true, but takes on an immediacy which demands that we remain sensitive to the consequences of medical actions. An ethics of neutrality sounds wonderful in theory—but in practice proves much more complex.

In May, scholars came together at Brown University for the conference “The Clinic in Crisis: Medicine and Politics in the Context of Social Upheaval.” Papers highlighted the fraught nature of medical practice when confronted with intense violence and repression. Terms usually taken as unproblematic—neutrality, dissent, harm—emerged as far more difficult concepts. The clinic appeared not as a space of altruistic service, but as a place where doctors and medics negotiated with established authorities, interrogated their own ethics, and committed acts of resistance. At times, the delivery of first aid itself constituted a challenge to state power.


The language of neutrality both empowers and silences those who seek to challenge the status quo.


In the coming weeks, Cosmologics will feature three papers from the conference. Each shows that medical practice cannot but interact with questions of ethics and neutrality in shifting and intricate ways. Writing on Egyptian doctors and their involvement with protest movements, Soha Bayoumi and Sherine Hamdy argue that, to the authoritarian state, the simple act of medical care works as a vehement protest. Similarly, Guy Shalev uses the testimony of two Palestinian doctors to emphasize how individuals balance political convictions and the alleged neutrality of the medical field. The language of neutrality both empowers and silences those who seek to challenge the status quo. Finally, Sara Matthiesen writes an alternative history of the pro-life movement. She offers a nuanced history often left out of contemporary narratives, and shows the depth at which medical, social, and religious concerns interact.

Science, like medicine, does not exist outside of history. Especially in situations of difference—whether religious, national, ethnic, or otherwise—it must confront a wide range of biases and assumptions. Indeed it is these factors that shape how science is practiced and accepted, as well as the role it plays in everyday life. By exploring the intersections of medicine, religion, and conflict, we at Cosmologics aim to deepen our understandings of these concepts and to better prepare ourselves for the complexity of the ethical decisions we may one day all have to make.

Image from Flickr via scottmontreal


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