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For Doctors, Staying Out Of Politics Isn't An Option

If the past is any guide, writes physician resident C. Nicholas Cuneo, we in medicine may be especially vulnerable to aiding and abetting human rights violations. Pictured: Author C. Nicholas Cuneo, a physician resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Medical Center, protests Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's decision not to relocated its upcoming fundraiser from Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's Florida resort. (Courtesy Craig Harris)closemore
If the past is any guide, writes physician resident C. Nicholas Cuneo, we in medicine may be especially vulnerable to aiding and abetting human rights violations. Pictured: Author C. Nicholas Cuneo, a physician resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Medical Center, protests Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's decision not to relocated its upcoming fundraiser from Mar-a-Lago, President Trump's Florida resort. (Courtesy Craig Harris)
COMMENTARY

I stood with more than 100 fellow concerned citizens and members of the Harvard medicine community Saturday to peacefully protest Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s decision not to relocate its upcoming fundraising gala from Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s “winter White House.”

As a resident physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, I take care of both adult and pediatric DFCI patients on a regular basis. I have seen many lives saved by DFCI’s cutting-edge treatments, and I am in awe of the concentration of scientific and clinical expertise within the institute.

I am also in awe of the naivety of DFCI’s leaders at this moment in time. First, they booked this year’s gala event at Mar-a-Lago well after Trump began his campaign of hate starting in June 2015 (when he spouted his famous derogatory words about Mexican immigrants). Then, they released this statement last week, explaining why they refused to budge on this year’s fundraiser: “A decision at this point to cancel, as has been requested by some, would also be seen as a political statement, and again, our goal is to stay out of politics.”

The notion that science can be politically neutral is disingenuous, at best, and misleading, at worst, particularly when coming from physician scientists of the caliber of the DFCI leadership board.

If the past is any guide, we in medicine may be especially vulnerable to aiding and abetting human rights violations.

If the past is any guide, we in medicine may be especially vulnerable to aiding and abetting human rights violations. As students of history, we learn about the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb, as well as the Nazi doctors who paved the way for the 1947 Nuremberg Code, which governs the ethical research of human subjects. Indeed, these unfortunate examples of the intersection of science and politics are mandatory reading for those undergoing training to participate in human research. (DFCI currently lists more than 500 human clinical trials on its website.) From Tuskegee to Henrietta Lacks, the history of science and medicine in America is rife with additional case studies.

As physicians, we get trained in the mistakes of the past precisely to cultivate a well-developed moral compass, and ethical questions routinely appear on our credentialing exams. The esteemed philosopher C.P. Snow, the authoritative voice on the “un-neutrality of science,” once argued, “The desire to find the truth is itself a moral impulse, or at least contains a moral impulse … The way in which a scientist tries to find the truth imposes on him a constant moral discipline.”

Morality, in turn, necessitates political awareness, engagement and action in the face of frank injustices and violations of human rights. Human rights, as the cornerstone of international law, cannot be accepted as politically conditional, even if they have become politicized within this country. Just as we physicians are mandated reporters of child and elder abuse, we must be first in line to speak out when we see others being exploited and attacked, and not quiver on the sidelines. Dr. Laurie Glimcher, DFCI’s president, has shown herself to be a champion of women’s rights in the scientific community, which have certainly been politicized, but are human rights no less.

Just as we physicians are mandated reporters of child and elder abuse, we must be first in line to speak out when we see others being exploited and attacked, and not quiver on the sidelines.

Finally, the funding on which scientists and physicians rely for research is also highly political terrain, as the Mar-a-Lago debacle has brought to light. As recipients of public funding in the form of National Institutes of Health grants, we are stewards of the public trust. We get public funding (itself politically allocated by Congress) so we can pursue questions of importance to the general public with the highest potential for objectivity, free from the competing vested interests of private funders. When we do get money from private sources, such as pharmaceutical companies, we are mandated to transparently report it when we submit data for publication. We must remain keenly aware of where our funding comes from and the various possible implications of the source.

Let’s be clear. Trump has denigrated women, as well as virtually every minority group. Many of us in the Harvard medical community have felt personally and viciously attacked by him. His recent executive order on immigration was patently motivated by religious intolerance and is now being exposed as unconstitutional. His refusal of refugees into our country, as Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to point out, violates international law apart from being extraordinarily callous. Our patients are scared, as are many of us. Staying out of politics is not an option, and if it were, it would certainly not be accomplished by lining the pockets of our embattled president through a very public fundraiser.

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C. Nicholas Cuneo, MD Cognoscenti contributor
C. Nicholas Cuneo, MD is a resident physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Medical Center.

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