Commentary Religion

‘Only God Can Judge’: Why My Religion Supports—and Doesn’t Hinder—My Ability to Provide Health Care

Dr. Terez Yonan

It is not my place to justify why someone may need, for example, contraception or abortion; I only need to provide them access to such services.

As an adolescent medicine physician, I’ve been monitoring the political scene and changes put forth by the Trump administration that affect the medical arena. Many of the administration’s changes have been concerning to me because they seem to affect the most vulnerable populations in our country, particularly women, poor, and low-income or LGBTQ patients. I am disappointed with the administration’s latest attempts to use faith as an excuse to deny patients care, including contraception, abortion care, or other necessary services. Not because I practice medicine in the “blue” state of California, but because I practice medicine with my religious principles in mind.

The development of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services counters the basic tenets of the ethical practice of medicine. My colleagues and I have all taken the oath to “first, do no harm,” and this division encourages the diminishment of that oath. The Conscience and Religious Freedom Division “protects” those who refuse to provide necessary health care to those who contradict their moral and religious beliefs. This could have detrimental effects on the provision of medical services to those who need it most; primary care for the LGBTQ community, contraceptive care, and abortion care can all fall into this terrifying slew of services that patients may now be denied.

In reflecting on my own experiences, I know that I have not had the most “traditional” journey into medicine. It’s been long and full of change, with the occasional unexpected hurdle. Yet it has all been manageable because of my religion and morals—all instilled in me by my upbringing.

I spent my early childhood in the Middle East, in a Catholic household. My family came to the United States just as I was starting elementary school. Our family’s dedication to our faith shaped the way my mother and father parented. They are the people who taught me right and wrong, and who instilled in me the “golden rule”—treat others how you expect to be treated. Another important teaching my parents passed on to me through our faith is, “only God can judge.” These two tenets of Catholicism bring me peace and actually take pressure off my medical decision making. It is not my place to justify why someone may need, for example, contraception or abortion; I only need to provide them access to such services.

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My faith has been there for me, especially through tough times. Times like moving across the world as a young child, moving across the United States several times as a teenager, before almost every exam, in applying to graduate school and medical school, and making it through four years of medical school, six years of medical training, and five board exams to complete my medical training. Undoubtedly, my religion and spirituality are integral to my being.

My faith is the crux of my approach to health care as well. I make a conscious effort to treat my patients as I would want to be treated, especially in a medical office—a place that can make anyone feel anxious or vulnerable.

Over the last few years as I have embarked on my medical career, I have found that I lean on my faith often. It gives me strength when my patients are hurting and hope when my patients are in need. I believe that having any faith enables us as humans to manage the difficulties that come our way. This is not to dismiss those who are atheist or agnostic, as they find their supports in other aspects of life. When my patients bring up their faith or spirituality, I encourage them to use it as a tool in tandem with our medical interventions while we work up mysterious symptoms, wait for test results, or when mental health symptoms worsen.

My faith reminds me to remain non-judgmental and unbiased as I care for patients. As I specialize in care of adolescents, with an expertise in reproductive health care for young women, I see teenagers and young adults for a wide variety of medical concerns. Additionally, I specialize in the care of LGBTQA youth, a group that sees a great deal of discrimination and judgment—often times from conservative and religious groups, groups which they themselves may be members of.

As a doctor, my job is to act as an unbiased, supportive, and compassionate resource for all of my patients.

If a patient seeks contraception, I counsel them on their options and prescribe what they decide is best for them given their values and priorities. If a patient seeks an abortion, I provide referrals (as I was not trained to perform this specialized treatment). If a patient wants to engage in sex safely, we discuss condoms, contraception, sexually transmitted infections and HIV testing, as well as HIV prevention with post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). If a transgender patient wants to start hormones as part of their transition, I prescribe it. I monitor my patients’ progress and health with these treatments and want the best for them.

Some may assume that these topics are unaligned with my faith; that as a Catholic, I would not be referring abortion care, providing care to LGBTQ people, or encouraging safe sexual behaviors. Instead, I find that these services are truly in line with the social justice tradition of Catholicism. 

In addition to general health care, I find that no matter one’s ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion (even for those with a strong religious background), the following are everyday needs that are experienced by all people: pregnancy prevention, prenatal care, abortion care, healthy sex life, and prevention of serious infections and illness. Alas, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will impact these essential medical services.

To me, these are all basic medical services that all patients are entitled to. This goes back to the idea of reserving judgment of others. I also care for patients and families who feel certain interventions do not align with their beliefs. I respect these patients equally and do not force my medical opinion nor recommendations onto them. In line with this, my hope is that politicians, medical providers, and the general public do not impose their beliefs on the those who seek and need such medical interventions. 

My capacity or ability to provide these medical services is not dictated by my religion, but by my medical training and specialized expertise. This was an unexpected consequence of my parents moving us to the United States: Not only was I able to become an advanced specialist physician, but I was able to do so while practicing my faith freely and truly. My religion does not oppose my medical practice; it complements it.

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