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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

2nd place — Grad student essay contest: Kaylin Camidge 

Kaylin Camidge

FFRF awarded Kaylin $3,000.

By Kaylin Camidge 

Religion and medicine have co-existed since prehistoric times. The first health care workers were priest-physicians who were believed to possess supernatural powers to combat disease, which was perceived as punishment from the gods. 

For centuries, physical and mental ailments were attributed to spiritual or divine causes, especially in Western civilizations. Some research suggests that spirituality may improve health outcomes in both disease prevention and recovery. However, in many instances, religion has served as a hindrance and a detriment to medical and public health efforts. 

Religious beliefs have posed serious bioethical debates in medicine. For decades, medical practitioners have been challenged by the refusal to administer necessary blood transfusions to members of certain religious groups, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. Physicians are taught to embody the Hippocratic Oath — “Do no harm” and maximize beneficence for their patients. 

However, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a religious objection to blood donation or transfusion, even in life-threatening circumstances. This poses legal and ethical issues, as each clinical case must be met with multifaceted considerations, including the capacity to consent, the necessity to act, advanced directives, and the patient’s best interest.

Further complications arise when parents deny necessary medical intervention on behalf of their children due to religious reasons. In 1996, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act, which legislated that there was no federal requirement for a child to receive medical service if it went against the religious beliefs of his/her parent or guardian. 

Religion has also played a significant role in health policy, especially regarding abortion. For decades, pro-life advocates have publicly denounced women’s rights to abortion access, often claiming abortion is the murder of babies and is against the will of God. Since the legislation of Roe v. Wade, radical anti-abortion groups have formed, most notably the Army of God, Missionaries of the Preborn, and the American Coalition of Life Activists. 

The Army of God alone has been linked to bombing and arson attacks of over 100 abortion clinics throughout the United States. This movement is not only a national threat, but a universal one, with attacks occurring throughout Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Thus, religious dogma not only affects the health of its believers and their children, but it is perpetually used as justification for unspeakable acts against women, OB-GYNs, and any individual who aids others in getting an abortion. 

Lastly, religion has contributed to vaccine hesitancy among various groups, including Catholics, Protestants, Jewish, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Most of these groups have faith in divine protection and healing. Many Muslims refuse vaccinations because vaccines contain non-Halal ingredients. Additionally, they believe nothing should enter or leave the body during Ramadan. Believers contend that disease is the will of God and nothing should go against it, including vaccinations. Consequently, many mandated vaccinations offer religious exemptions, including HPV, polio or Covid-19. In turn, polio, which should have been eradicated by herd immunity, has resurged in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, vaccine hesitancy has thwarted the efforts made by thousands of scientists to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide. When epidemiologists urged for the suspension of religious gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus, they were met with direct opposition. Although many religious leaders complied with CDC recommendations to cancel services, others vehemently defied suggestions made by public health officials. Gatherings such as the Hindu religious festival, Kumbh Mela, and the Muslim missionary congregation, Tablighi Ijtema, led to surges of Covid-19 cases and the spreading of the virus internationally. 

As a medical student, I have witnessed how spirituality can help patients cope with the most devastating diseases. However, religion is not the solution to illness; medicine is. Religious dogma should not be used to defy medical experts who have spent decades learning how to best treat patients. Religion has no place in infringing on the rights of women’s bodily autonomy, nor should it be used to justify harming others who make different lifestyle choices. During medical crises, it is essential to turn to evidence-based scientific research. Individuals should be allowed to exercise their right to freedom as long as it does not negatively impact the lives of others. Opponents of organized religion often emphasize the necessity of separation of church and state. We must strive for a separation of church and hospital, as well. 

Kaylin, 24, attends the Georgetown University School of Medicine. 

“I am emboldened by the need to mitigate health disparities for marginalized communities and I aspire to become a primary care physician for historically underserved areas,” Kayline writes. “Along with patient care, I am also passionate about service, advocacy and social justice. Throughout my undergraduate years, I volunteered as a clinical intern for an underfunded nursing home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I also taught physical, sexual and mental health classes to high school students in underfunded high schools who would otherwise have little to no access to a quality health education.”