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The WMA on medical ethics—some critical comments
  1. S Holm
  1. Correspondence to:
 S Holm
 Cardiff Law School, Cardiff CF10 3XJ, UK; holms{at}

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Because the WMA’s new manual contains a partially partisan view of what constitutes medical ethics, if used for teaching it needs to be balanced by other materials

The recent publication of the World Medical Association’s (WMA) Medical Ethics Manual should be welcomed since it gives people all over the world, or at least those people who are on the internet and who have a reasonable printer, access to an introduction to medical ethics that can be used as the basis for an introductory course in medical ethics or for self study.1 The manual covers a wide range of ethical issues in medicine, but much of the focus is on the interaction between the physician and other individual agents—for example, patients and other healthcare professionals.

Although there is much that is uncontroversial in the manual, there are a number of places where it is either (deliberately?) vague or straightforwardly tendentious. In my short review I will focus on some of these problematic sections.

One problem in reviewing this publication is that it is not quite clear to what degree it reflects the views of the WMA. On page two we find the following disclaimer:

This Manual is a publication of the Ethics Unit of the World Medical Association. It was written by John R Williams, Director of Ethics, WMA. Its contents do not necessarily reflect the policies of the WMA, except where this is clearly and explicitly indicated (WMA,1 p 2).

In the foreword by the WMA Secretary General, however, we read that the manual is the result of:

… a process [that] was started to develop a basic teaching aid on medical ethics for all medical students and physicians that would be based on WMA policies, but not be a policy document itself (WMA,1 p 5).

I …

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  • Conflicts of interest: Søren Holm is a member of the Danish Medical Association and of the British Medical Association, both of which are members of the World Medical Association. He swore the Danish Physicians’ Oath in 1991 despite not being in total agreement with its text, which was originally written in 1815.

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