I completed my undergraduate education at Millsaps College, a small, liberal-arts institution in Jackson, Mississippi. My time at Millsaps proved to be four of the most formative years of my life. I was exposed to different viewpoints and ideas—many of which were more liberal and forward thinking than I had been privy to during my conservative upbringing and with my conservative family. After applying to medical school in my senior year, Millsaps informed the pre-health students about a lecture that a prominent Millsaps religious studies professor gave every year to medical students entitled “Religion and Medicine” at the University of Mississippi Medical College (which was just down the road). In this lecture, Dr. Bowley discussed the various aspects of respect in medicine as it might pertain to religion—everything from blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses, respecting dietary restrictions of various religions, to refraining from bringing preconceived biases about patients based on their religion into an appointment. At the end of the 2014 lecture, during a question and answer session, a student raised a question about the ethicality of medical mission trips. “No, they’re actually really unethical,” Dr. Bowley replied, and left it at that. Most of the people in the room, being medical students from the Deep South—who were raised in the Christian faith and didn’t necessarily go to a school like Millsaps—associated this question with the various stories of medical mission trips put on by their church congregations. And like most of those students, I was initially appalled at Dr. Bowley’s response. However, his viewpoint has stuck with me ever since, and after taking some time to think about it, I tend to agree.
Now let me get this out of the way: Medical missions can be good. Acutely, they help the communities they serve and improve life-threatening outcomes for patients in developing countries or impoverished areas. Often the doctors that go on these trips are passionate about helping people and altruistic in their efforts and intentions. These healthcare providers may, therefore, go above and beyond for these patients. They spend their own money to live for a period of time in uncomfortable situations solely for the purpose of bringing better outcomes to people in need. If that isn’t admirable, I don’t know what is.
However, I think it is important to take a step back and examine all of the effects that medial mission trips have on the cultural community. It is important to evaluate the ethical implications of entering a foreign society with an agenda beyond healing, and I’m not always sure the medical benefits outweigh the ethical costs. In my opinion, churches and religious groups send physicians to areas starving for help with the idea that if the patients accept the medicine and treatments, these people will come to Jesus. While physical healing does take place, the missionaries also hold worship services, prayer sessions, and provide spiritual care—not spiritual care within the vein of the culture they are serving, but rather spiritual care from their own Christian society. I can’t help but wonder if these patients feel that they will get less or, even worse, nothing if they do not participate in these counter-cultural religious festivities, lording the treatments to make people feel better as bait to come to religious services and participate in a spiritual ceremony that is as foreign to them as the medicine and procedures. Yes, when I step back to examine my ever-growing opinion, the thought of being a willing participant in such an unethical act scares me.
Through careful consideration, I’ve drawn my line. I cannot willingly be a participant in a trip that, however altruistic, has any semblance of ethical violation. If I am ever to practice medicine in a foreign country, it must be with an organization that is there for health and nothing more. I cannot and will not play a part in a trip that disrupts a functioning culture with its own religion and social structure. I will not impose my potentially foreign ideals onto them. In doing so, I would be dangerously close to becoming a modern day conquistador, using medicine to impart my own religion on others, robbing them of their identities and their culture. As for you, my friends, you must draw your own line.
We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl, you and I will die unbelievers
Bound to the tracks of the train
—Vampire Weekend, “Unbelievers”