The Conflict Between Ethics and Law for Medical Workers


Although legislation is supposed to reflect the ethical norms established in the community, there are various conflicts between morality and law. To a great extent, these discrepancies can affect the work of nursing professionals who are supposed to make sure that every patient receives adequate medical services. More importantly, they must focus on the dignity and value of every person. This paper is aimed at discussing the cases which illustrate the dilemmas that these medical workers have to confront. Much attention should be paid to the behavior of nurses who had to comply with prejudicial laws that facilitated the discriminatory or even inhumane treatment of patients. In addition to that, it is necessary to show how such situations should be dealt with. Overall, one can argue that there are no clear guidelines that enable nurses to resolve such conflicts. Yet, a nursing professional should attach importance to such principles as informed consent, beneficence, and non-maleficence because they are vital for protecting the interests of patients. These are the main issues that should be examined in greater detail since they have significant implications for medical institutions.

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Cases illustrating the conflict between ethics and law

It is possible to say that in many cases, nurses are forced to operate in the social and political environment in which discrimination against certain individuals is taken for granted. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about the Third Reich. This political regime perpetrated the forced sterilization of many people who were discriminated against due to their ethnic origins. Furthermore, one should speak about individuals with disabilities. The sterilization programs carried out by the Third Reich were implemented by people who were previously employed as medical workers (Benedict & Georges, 2013). Additionally, they could take part in various euthanasia programs and experiments involving human subjects (Foth, 2013). For example, some of them could give people deadly poison. Thus, they blatantly violated the ethical norms which were set for nurses. It should be mentioned that some of these people tried to justify their behavior. For example, they argued that they had cared about patients by minimizing their suffering (Benedict & Georges, 2013, p. 288). Additionally, some of them could even support the implementation of this policy; so, they totally embraced the ideology of racism. This case is important for showing that many nursing professionals could simply disregard their ethical obligations. They violated the principles of informed consent and non-maleficence which were recognized by medical workers in various countries. Admittedly, there were some notable exceptions. In particular, some of these people could simply leave the profession to express their disagreement with the policies of the state. In their opinion, it was the only way of retaining one’s ethical integrity or even human dignity. One should bear in mind that at that time, this decision was a very courageous act because such people could face prosecution. This is one of the points that should be taken into account. This choice was important for complying with the rules recognized by medical workers. It was probably the only step that a person could step under those circumstances.

Certainly, there are less notorious cases but they should also be considered by nursing professionals. In particular, the laws could enable medical workers to disregard the needs of some minority groups that lacked political representation. In the first half of the twentieth century, African-American people could be treated as second-rate citizens by the existing governmental institutions, including hospitals (Barker, 2009, p. 506). Nurses were required to consider the needs of white patients as their topmost priority (Barker, 2009, p. 506). In turn, black patients could be treated as inferior. For example, they could be required to wait for many hours even if they came first to the hospital (Barker, 2009, p. 506). This is one of the examples that should be taken into account because it shows how nurses and physicians completely disregarded such requirements as equality and fairness. Apart from that, people, who tried to break this tradition, could face the hostility of others (Barker, 2009, p. 506). Admittedly, many nurses could embrace this policy. They did not perceive it as something completely outrageous. Nevertheless, there were many nursing professionals who displayed empathy for black patients. Furthermore, they provided adequate medical services to them, even though such behavior could be criticized. To some degree, they contributed to the slow transformation of American society. On the whole, these examples are important for showing that sometimes nurses could be forced to compromise their ethical integrity. Yet, some of them rejected the norms which were imposed on them by the state, and these people could become role models for later generations of nurses.

Nevertheless, one should bear in mind that there are more complex situations involving the conflict between ethical and legal norms. In particular, in many cases, there are conflicts between the wishes of a patient’s relatives and the accepted best practices that nurses should adopt (George & Dimond, 2009). Such disputes often occur at the time when it is necessary to provide care to patients whose mental capacity can be impaired due to some reasons. For instance, one can mention terminal patients who often take sedatives or pain relievers that make them extremely drowsy (George & Dimond, 2009). So, it is often difficult for them to think clearly (George & Dimond, 2009). Sometimes, their relatives may object to the use of these drugs because they want to talk to dying patients (George & Dimond, 2009). This conversation can be important for the consolation of both patients and their relatives. Nevertheless, the use of drugs is vital for minimizing a person’s suffering. This situation can also exemplify the conflicts between ethical norms and law. For example, nurses have to use best practices which are important for promoting the wellbeing of a patient, but at the same time, they need to consider the wishes of patients. Under such circumstances, nurses, as well as physicians, usually prefer to comply with the existing norms. This case shows that it may not be easy to choose between ethics and morality. This is one of the issues that should not be overlooked.

Ways of resolving potential conflicts

Overall, it is possible to offer several recommendations that can help nurses take decisions at the time when ethical and legal norms enter into conflict with one another. Provided that the existing legislative norms facilitate the discrimination of patients based on race, gender, or ethnicity, they should openly express their disagreement with existing policies. Furthermore, they may need to leave this medical organization because, in this way, they can show that prejudicial laws can undermine the healthcare system. Apart from that, they should make sure that every patient is treated in a fair and equitable way, even though such behavior can result in public outrage or criticism. Admittedly, this scenario is highly improbably, especially in developed countries. Nevertheless, this case is important because it shows that nurses should be able to question legal norms and regulations in a critical way. A person should bear in mind that the attempts to comply with discriminatory or prejudicial laws can undermine the professional activities of a nurse because he/she can harm patients instead of helping them. This is one of the arguments that can be put forward.

Nevertheless, in some cases, it is necessary to comply with existing legislation, especially, if it is related to the use of best practices that have been recognized and adopted by medical workers. Additionally, a person should keep in mind that he/she can be mistaken of the evaluation of the situation. Furthermore, by violating ethical norms, one can harm the patient. For example, this individual can be exposed to suffering. In many cases, such behavior can result in legal conflicts that can result in significant penalties such as suspension. This is one of the pitfalls that should be avoided by nursing professionals. Under such circumstance, one should give preference to legal and professional norms. This is one of the key suggestions that can be offered to nurses.

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On the whole, much attention should be paid to the ethical principles that are recognized by medical workers. In particular, it is possible to consider autonomy of patients and their right for self-determination. In this way, nurses can help patients retain their dignity. Additionally, nurses should comply with such principles as non-maleficence which means that one should shield patients from possible risks. As a rule, various regulations and legal norms are supposed to make sure that nurses and medical professionals comply with the principle of non-maleficence. Apart from that, nurses should follow the principle of informed consent which means that a patient is fully aware about the advantages and disadvantages of different treatment modes. These are the key norms that can be singled out because they are important for protecting the health and dignity of patients. As a rule, these norms are reflected in professional regulations and legal norms. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked.


On the whole, these examples suggest that sometimes, the ethical obligations of a nurse may not fully coincide with existing regulations or law. There is no clear-cut strategy that can help nurses handle such situations, because much depends on the specific problem that a person has to consider. At first, it is critical to consider those situations when a patient is discriminated on the basis of gender, ethnicity, religion and so forth. Under such circumstances, nurses should focus on their ethical obligations, rather than regulations. However, there are more complex situations involving the conflict between professional regulations and ethical convictions of a person. In this case, a nurse should adopt the best practices that have been proved effective. Additionally, one should consider the principles that are recognized by medical community because they are important for safeguarding the interests of patients. These are the main arguments that can be put forward.

Reference List

Barker, A. (2009).Advanced Practice Nursing: Essential Knowledge for the Profession. New York, NY: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Benedict, S., & Georges, J. (2013). Nurses and the sterilization experiments of Auschwitz: a postmodernist perspective. Nursing Inquiry, 13(4), 277-288.

Foth, T. (2013). Understanding ‘caring’ through biopolitics: the case of nurses under the Nazi regime. Nursing Philosophy, 14(4), 284-294.

George, R., & Dimond, B. (2009). Ethics and the law: conflict with relatives over treatment. Clinical Practice Development, 3(2), 34-38.

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