The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep insights can be winnowed from deep nonsense."....  ...Carl Sagan.

Commentary of the Day - April 13, 2006:  Politically Correct but Hardly Ethical.

A recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Linda Reid Chassiakos, who is the director of the student health center at Cal State Northridge, illustrates a moral dilemma that can arise when political correctness is allowed to trump common sense.  Dr. Chassiakos is a physician who received her training in the early 1970s, a time when the percentage of female students in medical schools was much smaller than it is today. so she knows well the pernicious effects of discrimination.  The student health center that she supervises provides health care and health counseling to Cal State Northridge students; and, it also provides opportunities for practical training and experience for students who are majoring in various health care fields.

As Dr. Chassiakos noted in her article, the center has hosted nursing students, medical students, and Northridge seniors who are majoring in nutrition.  Not too long ago Dr. Chassiakos received an unusual request from a woman in the nutrition program.  Both the woman and her husband are practicing Muslims.  The husband had asked his wife not to speak to or counsel any men while she was working in the health center because that would conflict with their religious beliefs.  The wife agreed to the request, and asked Dr. Chassiakos to allow her to work only with female patients during her training in the health center.  Chassiakos promised her a quick response.

Though her initial reaction was to turn down the request, Chassiakos was concerned that such a response would be intolerant of the student's religious beliefs, and after consultation with faculty members, the university's diversity office, and legal counsel she agreed to the student's request.  The student would be permitted to work only with female clients, while others from her class would provide dietetic services for male patients.

It is clear from the article that Chassiakos was conflicted by her decision.  At one point she writes "don't I have to acknowledge that some women will choose to submit to restrictions of freedom, imposed by a relationship or culture?"  But, then asks "on the other hand, would those chosen restrictions be acceptable if they were directed at groups not identified by gender, but by criteria such as ethnicity or sexual preference ..."

And, she begins her final paragraph with the statement "Deep down, however, I am not convinced that I made the right choice."

Dr. Chassiakos' discomfort with her decision is understandable because in the end she chose to accommodate the religious beliefs of one of her providers at the expense of nearly half of her clients.  That simply is unacceptable.  Northridge is a public university.  Its health center is supported by taxpayer funds and mandatory student fees.  It can no more discriminate by gender in the services it provides than it could by ethnicity or other factors.  But when the health center allows one of its providers to choose who she will serve, it has done just that.

Health care providers certainly are entitled to their own religious beliefs and preferences.  However, when they work in a public facility they hardly have the right to impose their individual beliefs and preferences on their clients.  Would a health center doctor who belonged to a religious sect that was opposed to homosexuality be permitted to refuse to treat gay students?  Would a health center nurse whose religion did not permit the use of contraceptives be allowed to refuse to counsel students about the use of contraceptives?  We all know the answers to those questions.  When you choose to work in a public health facility, you put aside your personal beliefs and provide the best possible care to your clients regardless of who they may be.

It may be argued that a public university, such as Cal State Northridge, does have some obligation to make reasonable accommodations for students who hold strong religious beliefs.  The key point, however, is that the accommodation must be reasonable.  Allowing a trainee to work only with female clients or only with heterosexual clients or only with any other subgroup of clients in the student health center is not reasonable.  What might be reasonable would be to allow the nutrition student who did not want to counsel male students to complete her practical training at a private facility such as a health club that caters only to women.


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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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