Bioethics News

Harassment “pervasive” among Australian surgeons

The late Edmund Pellegrino, the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics under George W. Bush, was a champion of approaching bioethics through the lens of virtue ethics. A virtuous physician must also be a virtuous person, characterised  by the  character traits of courage, honesty, justice, wisdom, temperance and so on.

What would he say about the scandal which has blown up amongst Australian surgeons?

In March, a vascular surgeon, Gabrielle McMullin, made headlines when she complained about widespread sexism amongst her colleagues and about a toothless complaints mechanism. She said that she had advised surgical trainees to provide sexual favours or otherwise their career prospects would be damaged.

But the president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Professor Michael Grigg, angrily denied that there was a culture of sexual harassment. “The inference is that this is what successful female surgeons and trainees have done in the past and this is deeply insulting,” he said. “Unfortunately, instances of sexual harassment and indeed bullying in general occur in society, but encouraging non-reporting serves only to perpetuate it.”

However, Dr McMullin’s outburst did prompt an investigation by an “expert advisory group” which was released earlier this week. It was shocked by what it had found — that “discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment are pervasive and serious problems in the practice of surgery in Australia and New Zealand”. It called for “a profound shift in the culture of surgery”. Although about half of fellows, trainees and international medical graduates surveyed said they had been bullied, they still believed that lodging a complaint was  “career suicide”. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.