Doctors union takes aim at minister who claimed faith is grounds to deny treatment

Israel Medical Association runs TV, radio ads saying MDs will never discriminate against patients, after far-right Orit Strock said they should be able to if it violates religion

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Orit Strock, now National Missions Minister, seen at the Religious Zionist party headquarters in Modi'in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Orit Strock, now National Missions Minister, seen at the Religious Zionist party headquarters in Modi'in on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The central doctors’ union in Israel has initiated a national advertising campaign to oppose what it views as a government minister’s assault on medical ethics.

Responding to controversial comments last month by far-right National Missions Minister Orit Strock, the Israel Medical Association has placed ads on TV and radio stressing that doctors will never discriminate in the care they provide.

The two-day ad campaign was timed to coincide with Doctors’ Day on Wednesday, an annual occasion when many Israelis express thanks to their physicians with cards and social media posts.

Strock caused a furor last month, shortly before her ministerial appointment, when she said doctors should be allowed to refuse to provide treatments that contravene their religious faith, as long as another doctor is willing to provide the same treatment. Her Religious Zionism party, as noted in its coalition agreement with Likud, has proposed legislation that would potentially allow service providers to refuse service if it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Strock’s position, but IMA deputy chairman Dr. Zeev Feldman said his organization decided to take to the airwaves out of concern that her comments could shape government policy or national discourse.

Feldman said he believes acceptance of Strock’s position could potentially empower doctors to decline a range of treatments, including fertility treatment to unmarried women, abortions and specialist care for LBGTQ Israelis.

Dr. Zeev Feldman, deputy chairman of the Israel Medical Association. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Our campaign makes it very clear this can’t happen,” he told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “We will hold firm to the oath we all took, and treat every person to the best of our ability, regardless of race, gender and any other factors.”

Speaking last month, Strock proclaimed that “if a doctor is asked to give any type of treatment to someone that violates his religious faith, if there is another doctor who can do it then you can’t force them to provide treatment,” she told Kan public radio. The Religious Zionism lawmaker claimed that sometimes religious faith is “trampled upon” in the context of anti-discrimination rules.

But Feldman said the medical community is close to “unanimous” that medical ethics are based on the fact that the patient’s identity and life choices must never deter a physician from providing them with the best level of care.

“The Israeli healthcare system has a reputation, which we’re proud of, for treating everyone equally,” Feldman said. “Jewish and Arab doctors work together in a system that discriminates against no one, and this must remain.”

Feldman added that healthcare workers are “an island of sanity and professionalism in a turbulent society and we want to keep it free of interference based on political agendas and keep the focus on patients.”

Medical ethicists in Israel say that equality in treatment is non-negotiable. Shimon Glick, former Health Ministry ombudsman and emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University, said he did not want to talk specifically about Strock, but commented on Wednesday: “Physicians in the Western world are responsible to treat everyone, period, and the Jewish attitude is also that way.”

Dr. Shimon Glick speaks at a Physician’s Oath Ceremony for the Class of 2018 in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Medical School for International Health. (Dani Machlis)

He said that this is not limited to life-saving procedures, but includes a full range of medical services. He gave the example of a fertility clinic, which provides IVF, saying a doctor working there would have no grounds to refuse to treat an unmarried woman based on a personal belief that children should be born to married parents.

Glick, who is Orthodox, is renowned for his expertise on Jewish medical ethics, and is the father of the former right-wing Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick. He told The Times of Israel that “a person may not agree with homosexuality, for example, but as a doctor they have an obligation to treat that person just like they treat everyone else.”

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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