Taking our Medevac medicine: From professional promises to prophetic protest and political change

Gordon Preece re-examines the medevac campaign in light of a new documentary, 'Against Our Oath'

By Gordon Preece

April 2 2020 

Melbourne priest Gordon Preece re-examines the medevac campaign in light of the documentary Against Our Oath, and reflects on the lessons from that campaign that can continue to inspire us in many fields of endeavour.

With summer bushfires and now coronavirus dominating our media in 2020, many have forgotten an inspiring model of social change in recent times. It would do us well to remember the Medevac emergency evacuations to Australia last year and the ethical medical care of asylum seekers from offshore detention in Nauru and Manus Island. 

We must not succumb to emergency overload and forget professional and democratic or Christian practices. Medevac was not merely a one-off victory in February 2019, lasting less than a year, before being tragically overturned on the last parliamentary sitting day of 2019. The Medevac case-study, so movingly depicted in Heather Kirkpatrick’s daring documentary Against Our Oath, can inspire us in our current emergency and in the daily but constant attentive care of all kinds, in our paid and unpaid professions.

1. Promises: This is the first premise of the documentary’s title and broader history of the Hippocratic Oath (named after philosopher-physician Hippocrates from Kos, 460-370 BC). We are what we promise. We owe people what we make oaths about, explicit or implicit, whether asylum seekers or medical professionals. Promises anticipate what character we aspire to, and at our best display over time, as individuals, institutions and nations. 

The particular Hippocratic promise that pro-Medevac medical professionals upheld was "do no harm". Updated in the World Medical Association Physicians Pledge of 1948, after the 1946-47 Nuremberg Medical Trials, they committed to the primacy of the individual patient – in Immanuel Kant’s secularised Christian rationalist terms – never to treat another (rational) human being as merely a means to an end, but instead as an end in themselves. 

This includes treating asylum seekers (adults and children) as mere means to the end of deterring other asylum seekers from attempting to come to Australia. This isolates deterrence from other aspects of justice, such as the punishment fitting or being proportionate to the alleged crime (unlike indefinite or child detention), or mercy to and reform of alleged offenders.

2. Protest: Against Our Oath shows normally politically docile or "silent" doctors and others, typifying Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s preferred "quiet Australians", being moved to passionately protest. Several stress that they are sticking strictly to their knitting – their clinical expertise in terms of what constitutes physical or mental harm to their patients. Also common is harassment from Australian Border Force bureaucrats accelerating when children and/or their parents – some of them pregnant, some having attempted suicide – should be returned to the very environment that had harmed them. This is a violation of medical care, akin to sins of omission or keeping minors in positions of peril in child abuse cases. 

Small victories are cited – for example, by Christian paediatric neurologist Helen Young, who was involved in treating asylum seekers, including children, in Australia and on Nauru. These protests were costly to careers in some cases, and certainly stressful through threats and the pressure applied. For medical professionals on Nauru, they led to a rapid turnover of anyone questioning the status quo. 

These protests are analogous to biblical prophetic actions because they persisted from 2016 to 2019 in a concerted and costly campaign. This showed great stamina and a steadfast focus on the key issue of upholding the integrity of their patients. 

3. Political and policy change: Doctors and institutions such as the Lady Cilento (now Queensland) Children’s Hospital in Brisbane protested for policy change, and former head of the AMA-turned-independent Federal MP Kerryn Phelps, gained political power with other independents, enabling temporary passage of the Medevac legislation but leaving a lasting model of moral policy. 

These examples of medical professionals’ promises and perseverance in professional practices can inspire not just medical practitioners. They highlight what American philosopher Elaine Scarry’s Thinking in an Emergency depicts as the basic habits of humanity and democracy in rejecting utilitarian use and abuse of other humans. Such erasure of others’ individual dignity and "equality of survival" is often produced by governments and powerful interests using emergency powers to short-circuit essential practices and second-guess hard-won expertise. 

May God in timely fashion again enable our nation to take our Medevac medicine and allow professional wisdom to spare us from mass folly and fear. In the name of Hippocrates and Christ the Healer. 

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece is Chair of the Diocesan Social Responsibilities Committee  and Director of Ethos Centre for Christianity & Society (www.ethos.org.au) and the Network for Religion & Social Policy, University of Divinity.