Yes, Russian Docs Should Be Shut Out of Medical Associations, Says Ethicist

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


March 21, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

There are many difficult moral issues that are being fueled by the terrible war that Russia is waging against Ukraine. I think there is no way to justify anything that the Russians are doing. Ukraine did not do anything to violate Russian integrity, Russian territorial integrity, or anything by way of being aggressive toward Russia.

Russia decided at some point it wanted the Ukraine back. Putin has a dream, as the long-standing leader of Russia, to restore the Soviet empire, and Ukraine is top of the list of the places that he wants back for a variety of reasons.

We're not here to debate the merits and demerits of this terrible act of war. One issue that's come up that doctors and scientists face is whether they should be cooperating with Russian scientific societies, Russian doctors, and Russian scientists.

The European Society of Cardiology made a decision very recently to drop, as members, both Russia and Belarus, Russia's ally in this aggressive war against Ukraine. They basically found it intolerable to have business as usual with these subsidiary cardiology societies as part of the ongoing activities of the European group.

The sole goal of this overarching European group is to reduce the health burden of cardiovascular disease. It doesn't have political goals. It doesn't have much to say about anything other than, "Let's get evidence-based medicine used to try and prevent heart disease or treat heart disease." So there's noble intent.

Many of its members asked, "What are we doing in politics? Why are we punishing Russian and Belarussian cardiologists, acting as if somehow they are responsible for what the Russian army is doing or for what Putin has decided to do? Why are we acting against them? They are just trying to fight heart disease. That's a legitimate goal for any doctor, public health official, or scientist." They didn't see, as members, why this exclusion had taken place.

I believe the exclusion is appropriate and some of the membership, obviously, in the European Society of Cardiology, agrees. It's not because they're holding doctors or scientists directly accountable for Putin's war crimes, ethnic cleansing assault, or bombing and shelling of hospitals, maternity hospitals, and civilians.

They understand that these scientists and doctors have little to do with such things, but we are in a new form of warfare, and that warfare is basically economic and sociologic: turning Russia, as an inexcusably aggressive state, into a pariah.

The reason to break the ties is that that is the way to bring pressure upon Putin and his kleptocratic, oligarchic advisers to stop the attack, to try and bring down their economy, to say, "Business is not going to go on as usual. You will be excluded from normal scientific and medical commerce. We're not going to be holding conferences or exchanging ideas," and in my view, extending it to say, "We're not taking your papers, we're not publishing anything you do. We're not even having you speak at our meetings until this war, this aggressive invasion, and these war crimes come to a halt."

There is actually a basis for this action. It isn't in the organization's own bylaws, which as I said, are very simple — reduce cardiovascular disease burden — but they are a member of a broader group, the Biomedical Alliance in Europe, which does have a very explicit code of ethics.

I'm going to read you a little bit from that code. It says healthcare organizations should uphold and promote equality, diversity and inclusion, accountability, transparency, and equality. They also say that all members, including the European Society of Cardiology, should be committed both to the Declaration of Helsinki, a fundamental medical ethics document, and the Declaration of Geneva. These rules refer to the highest respect of human beings, responsible resource allocation, and preservation of the environment, among other things.

What the organization is doing is consistent with the code of ethics that the broader organization of all the medical societies of Europe say that these individual groups should be doing. You can't collaborate with war criminals. You can't act as if business as usual is going on. That's not inclusive. That's not respect for diversity.

I think the Ukrainian medical societies of cardiology and other specialties would find it grimly ironic to say that keeping Russian and Belarus members makes sense, given what's going on in their country and what is happening to them. They're under attack. They're being killed. Their healthcare institutions are being indiscriminately shelled and bombed.

It's very hard — and I understand that — to say we're going to punish scientists. We're going to, perhaps, even cause public health problems in Russia because we're not going to collaborate right now with doctors and scientists in cardiology or any other medical specialty. I think it's what has to be done.

We're in a new era of trying to combat what is basically organized, international ethnic terrorism, complete with war crimes. We fight financially. We fight by isolating. We fight by excluding. It's painful. It's difficult. It's somewhat unfair to individuals.

Only through that kind of pain are we going to get the kind of pressure that will achieve justice. I think that is a goal that we have to commend the European Society of Cardiology for honoring.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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