New WMA President Highlights Physicians' Obligations to Respect Human Life

Physicians' obligation to respect human life rather than to preserve it has been highlighted by the new President of the World Medical Association, Dr Jon Snaedal.

In his inaugural Presidential address at the WMA's annual General Assembly in Copenhagen, Dr Snaedal, a geriatrician from Iceland, said that when the WMA last year changed one word in its International Code of Medical Ethics from 'a physician shall always bear in mind the obligation to preserve human life' to 'a physician shall always bear in mind the obligation to respect human life', it reflected a fundamental change in physicians' way of thinking of their duties.

'Our abilities to treat our fellow human beings have vastly increased as we are now able to preserve life for a long time even if this life is without any obvious quality. There is a saying that life is a disease with 100 per cent mortality, a saying that medicalizes life itself. We have to acknowledge the fact that death is inevitable and that in its last phases it is of more value to the person to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. In this phase our obligation is thus to respect the patient rather than to preserve his life.'

Dr Snaedal, Associate Professor at the Geriatric Department at Landspitali University Hospital, Iceland, said that every now and then they were faced with ethical dilemmas they did not foresee. One example which surfaced in Iceland just three weeks ago was when a private company in genetic research offered those who wished for it an analysis of their genetic makeup.

'The whole genome is analyzed by half a million markers and the person will get a report on his chances of getting a number of diseases. But is it not just wonderful that we have a technique that can provide us with such
information of your health and health risks? In our view there are however obvious problems with this type of information. One is clearly that you are not able to change your genes, which means that if you know that your chances of getting, say, a certain type of cancer, you will not be able to affect that chance. Another is that this technique will obviously be very interesting to insurance companies who could then insist that you will go through such a test whether you like or not. There are even more obstacles to this idea than I have accounted for and this is just one example of many of what medical ethics is about.'

Dr Snaedal said that during his year of presidency his main concerns would be medical ethics.

He also referred to the WMA's record on human rights and mentioned specifically its collaboration with the International Council for Torture Victims on preventing torture. Use of the Istanbul Protocol in ten countries had now been underway for four years and he hoped that the WMA would continue this work.

Finally, speaking as a geriatrician, Dr Snaedal, said that on a daily basis he cared for and treated people with dementia, and more specifically Alzheimer's disease.

'I realize that the problems of specific groups of patients are not an issue for the WMA. We work for all of them. However I will use this opportunity to correct a prevalent misunderstanding, that this is a specific problem for the developed world. In fact most demented persons are found today in the developing world and the greatest increase of this patient group is without question in Asia and Africa.'