Debating a Duty to Treat: AIDS and the Professional Ethics of American Medicine


A heated ethical and professional debate occurred in the United States in the late 1980s over whether doctors had an ethical obligation to treat people with AIDS. Sparked by public refusals to treat by physicians, the debate was linked to changes in the epidemic and general tensions about the character of the profession. Despite widespread public consensus on the existence of a duty, the outcome of the debate was limited. Physicians’ obligations for HIV/AIDS were defined by law; no general and durable obligation in the face of epidemics was secured. The professional system proved weak in the face of potential crisis.