When Art Comes Before Ethics in Medicine
When should a medical professional say "no"?
“Don’t ask, don’t get.” As I move along in my career, that phrase pops into my head more and more. And as a writer and journalist, having to ask so many questions every day means that some requests inevitably fall flat. Maybe it’s a question that’s slightly too personal for an interviewee, or perhaps it’s a subject matter that’s too controversial for anyone to risk their career on. But at the end of the day it’s always the same: if I’m not asking, I’m not getting.
I bring this up because I recently learned of Le Baiser, an artwork by American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. A warning to the quick-draw link clickers among us: this photograph is shocking. Not necessarily because of its gory nature – I’m sure the grossers reading this have seen worse – but because of its bombastic ethical implications. When I look at it, I’m stunned. How in the world did someone approve this?
For context, the photo is of a cadaver; a human head sliced in two and positioned in such a way that it appears each half is embracing the other in a kiss. Artistically, it’s powerful. Ethically, it’s questionable. Witkin, the story goes, sourced the cross-section samples from a morgue and – presumably – got permission from the anatomical pathology technologist to position the samples and take the photo. It begs us to wonder if that permission should have ever been granted. Art doesn’t need to justify its existence – but you’d hope medicine is more scrupulous.
We live in an increasingly self-promotional world. Medical professionals aren’t just expected to engage in good practice – they need to be influencers, advocates, health gurus. Hot takes abound and opportunities to strengthen your “brand” are everywhere. But with each opportunity comes its own set of ethical implications. Are you overstepping the core tenant of medicine, to do no harm? Are you putting social clout above patient care? Don’t ask, don’t get – sure. But as someone who makes requests for a living, let me tell you that it’s equally fair to live by the simple rule of “don’t answer, don’t give.”
What are your thoughts on maintaining professionalism? Let me know on [email protected]
Interested in how disease interacts with our world. Writing stories covering subjects like politics, society, and climate change.