Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fake doctor notes in Wisconsin: civil disobedience or something else?

The other day physician and journalist Ford Vox wrote a piece on the ethics and consequences of the fake medical excuses written by doctors in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin. In saying that the docs failed to understand the impact of their action on public perception of the profession, he was right. In crediting them with an act of civil disobedience he missed the boat:

Members of the University of Wisconsin's Department of Family Medicine, including both residents and attendings, felt compassion for the educators' cause, and wanted to participate in the display, but rather than symbolically protest in the streets alongside the teachers, they decided to perform an act of civil disobedience: The doctors wrote out fake sick notes for the teachers, many of whom were falsely using illness as an excuse to attend the protests..

Wrong. Civil disobedience is open. Say you wanted to protest U.S. military spending. An act of civil disobedience might be to openly refuse to pay income tax. It would not be an act of civil disobedience to cheat on your income tax even if you rationalized that the morality of your use of the money would exceed that of Uncle Sam. If that's too rude an analogy it illustrates the point. The doctors in Wisconsin may have thought they were demonstrating for social change but they were being, to use not so rude a term, disingenuous.

Also consider that those who commit true civil disobedience are open in facing the consequences of their actions. The Wisconsin doctors were not. When approached by reporters and videographers the docs offered lame (and unintentionally hilarious) defenses or told the reporters to get lost. One wonders if any of them, especially the residents involved, counted the cost in advance.

This little stunt may have been the use of the profession as a vehicle for social change but it wasn't true civil disobedience.


Hal Dall, MD said...

Great point! I remember pamphlets about civil disobedience to the Vietnam War draft by Quakers. They considered jail as part of the package, if one tried to avoid the consequences, it was not simple, not civil, disobedience.

R. W. Donnell said...

Yes, good example. Dr. Vox seems confused on the concept of civil disobedience.