Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Religious Discrimination in the Selection of Medical Students: A Case Study

Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Religious Discrimination in the Selection of Medical Students: A Case Study

Article excerpt

In 1978 the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, responding to congressional concerns,(1) conducted a study to determine whether schools of medicine, nursing, or osteopathy deny admission or otherwise discriminate against any applicant because of the applicant's reluctance, or willingness, to counsel, suggest, recommend, assist, or in any way participate in the performance of abortions or sterilizations contrary to his or her religious beliefs or moral convictions.(2) Surveys were sent to all schools of medicine, nursing, and osteopathy in the United States, asking whether they discriminated against or denied admission to any of the named groups.(3) In addition, any applicant who had suffered such discrimination was asked to contact the surveyors, and any organization aware of incidents of discrimination was asked to describe details of such incidents.(4)

The questionnaire to the professional schools was organized around four areas of inquiry: (1) Does the medical school have a policy or understanding related to abortion or sterilization? (2) Are applicants ever queried about their views on abortion or sterilization? The school was asked to describe such inquiries. (3) What impact do the views expressed by applicants regarding abortion/sterilization have on an applicant's admission? (4) Are there any complaints by applicants concerning admission because of their views on such topics?(5)

One medical school that responded to this survey answered questions 1, 3, and 4 in the negative.6 Regarding the second question, it was stated that one faculty member routinely queried applicants about a hypothetical situation in which a fourteen-year-old unmarried Catholic girl requested an abortion. The applicant was asked to discuss the issues presented by this request from the viewpoint of the primary physician. The medical school stated that the purpose of this inquiry was not to determine a point of view, but to evaluate a capacity to identify relevant issues.(7) Whether the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare made any response to this positive answer or what report they made of it to Congress is not known. This article examines the actual practice of questioning of applicants on abortion and a penumbra of controversial topics in medical school admissions in light of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's letter.(8)

Some time after the survey, an opportunity was presented to study the actual admissions process at the school giving the answer described above and to compare it with the information presented to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This particular admissions procedure revolved around a number of factors. College grades (GPA) and the results of the standardized Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) were considered, particularly in the selection of students to be interviewed by the faculty of the school. Other factors considered included the recommendations submitted by the student's college and the information contained on the application form: questions about the student's demographic data (race, age, birthplace), parents (birthplace, occupation), the high school of graduation, and organizations to which the applicant belonged or other nonacademic activities (church membership was often listed, and some listed anti-abortion activities). in addition, each candidate wrote an essay as part of the application, presenting an account of experiences and motivations leading to the desire to become a physician. On occasion, some applicants mentioned a religious motivation as important in the decision to enter medical school. For medical school acceptance, it was essential that an applicant be selected for an interview. This decision was based largely on an applicant's MCAT and GPA, but some applicants were invited for other reasons. But however an applicant was selected for an interview, it remained a requirement for admission.(9)

The admissions committee was a decisive entity in the selection of applicants for the entering class, although not all applicants accepted necessarily had the approval of the admissions committee. …

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