In harm's way: AMA physicians and the duty to treat

J Med Philos. 2005 Feb;30(1):65-87. doi: 10.1080/03605310590907066.


In June 2001, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a revised and expanded version of the Principles of Medical Ethics (last published in 1980). In light of the new and more comprehensive document, the present essay is geared to consideration of a longstanding tension between physician's autonomy rights and societal obligations in the AMA Code. In particular, it will be argued that a duty to treat overrides AMA autonomy rights in social emergencies, even in cases that involve personal risk to physicians (e.g., bioterrorist attack, HIV infection, SARS). The argument will be made by way of the logic and language of the AMA Code through its history, commentaries, and precedents. It also will be shown that there are substantial reasons to believe that the logic of the Code is sound in morally relevant ways. The essay will conclude with some philosophical proposals suggesting a framework for the duty to render aid and the extension of those duties to physicians facing personal risks.

MeSH terms

  • American Medical Association
  • Codes of Ethics*
  • Emergencies*
  • Humans
  • Patient Rights / ethics*
  • Professional Autonomy*
  • Refusal to Treat / ethics*
  • Social Responsibility*
  • United States