NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

THE SUPREME COURT AND THE PURPOSES OF MEDICINE

May 9, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court increasingly complies with the medical profession's understanding of the use of medicine, says Gregg Bloche of Georgetown University, concerning interpretations of legal terms, self-regulation of poor physicians and the safeguarding of patients' rights and interests.

For example:

  • The Court's response to the Bush administration's attempt to thwart assisted suicide in the only state that allows it concluded the medical profession must determine medicine's boundaries within the framework of state laws.
  • In other cases, the justices extended such deference to individual doctors. Indeed, the right affirmed in Roe v. Wade was not a woman's right to abortion itself, but rather her right to her doctor's unfettered medical judgment regarding pregnancy termination.
  • The Court held that a hospital's disclosure to law-enforcement authorities of the results of patients' drug tests constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment (Ferguson v. City of Charleston). The Court relied on the contention of several medical groups that such results should be confidential.

The medical profession lacks full authority in determining its own social role, says Bloche. For example:

  • The Court ruled last year, in Gonzales v. Raich, that Congress's regulatory power over interstate commerce permits it to bar therapeutic use of marijuana, even if state law allows such uses and clinical judgment supports such uses.
  • Limits exist on abortion, therapeutic cloning and technologies enhancing physical and mental performance as well.

Source: Gregg Bloche, "The Supreme Court and the Purposes of Medicine," New England Journal of Medicine, March 9, 2006.

For text (subscription required):

http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/354/10/993

 

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