Why Doctors Should Be Allowed Mistakes (Even If They Include Claiming That Sperm Makes Women Happy)

As an editor for a website that focuses on controversial health topics and medically-relevant reports, I’m painfully aware of how just a simple turn of phrase can set off a timebomb of angry comments and Facebook “unlikes.” And now, so is prominent surgeon Lazar Greenfield, who just resigned his post as president-elect of the American College of Surgeons after his own editorial blunder: claiming that sperm improved the mood of women. Should he be ousted for making a bum medical claim? Should his botched editorial unravel decades of earnest work as a surgeon? According to many, his claims were outlandish, but his editorial wasn’t careless, so I can’t help but think that we should all loosen up and allow doctors, like ourselves, to make mistakes.

Dr. Greenfield, a distinguished vascular surgeon and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, wrote an editorial in Surgery News (a publication affiliated with the ACS) for Valentine’s Day, by which he strung together the results and hypotheses of several studies to conjecture that semen has mood-enhancing benefits for women:

So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.

I don’t really like the way that sounds, either, and his suggestion that women who have unprotected sex are happier than lesbians, women who practice abstinence, and women who use condoms during sex are even harder to accept:

As far as humans are concerned, you may think you know all about sexual signals, but you’d be surprised by new findings. It’s been known since the 1990s that heterosexual women living together synchronize their menstrual cycles because of pheromones, but when a study of lesbians showed that they do not synchronize, the researchers suspected that semen played a role. In fact, they found ingredients in semen that include mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%. Delivering these compounds into the richly vascularized vagina also turns out to have major salutary effects for the recipient. Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms (Arch. Sex. Behav. 2002;31:289-93). Their better moods were not just a feature of promiscuity, because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence. The benefits of semen contact also were seen in fewer suicide attempts and better performance on cognition tests.

His article provoked sharp debate among doctors, many of whom felt the article revealed sexism and a bias against lesbian and gay surgeons. Eventually, Surgery News retracted their entire February issue, pulling his editorial off the website and asking him to step down from his role as editor-in-chief. But their eventual retraction wasn’t enough to make some members of the ACS happy with the state of affairs.

Pauline W. Chen, M.D., who wrote about the editorial on New York TimesWell, reports that Dr. Colleen Brophy, a professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, has resigned from being chairwoman of the ACS’ surgical research committee after being a member for 20 years. “I’ve gone back and reviewed the science, and it’s erroneous,” she said. “But I’m resigning from the college not so much because of the editorial but because of the leadership’s response to it.” Chen also points out that, while half of all students entering medical school today are women, only 10% of the ACS are women, and only one-third of female medical students choose to specialize in surgery, “in part because of a perceived male bias, negative attitudes of surgeons and a lack of female mentors.”

Not only were Dr. Greenfield’s claims outlandish and sexist in themselves; they honed right in on a soft spot within the surgical community, too. Coincidence? A lot of people think not. I doubt he foresaw the reactions he would provoke (after all, Surgery News is hardly trying to drum up page views or subscribers based on stirring controversy), but it’s also hard to believe that his article isn’t based on a fundamentally sexist point of view.

But does that mean he should be ousted from society? I don’t think so. Doctors are human, too. And if they’re smart enough to be surgeons, I’d hope that they could figure out how to learn from their mistakes like the rest of us, too. For Dr. Greenfield, that could mean he needs to focus on the operating room instead of writing Valentine’s Day editorials, and hopefully the well-deserved embarrassment will teach him to rethink his biases and sexist remarks.

There are a lot of things wrong with our medical system; doctors, politicians, and yes, even patients, have all made mistakes. And if we don’t allow each other to admit them, fix them, and learn from them, then we’ll only continue trying to cover up our problems instead of treating the real disease. Putting doctors on a pedestal and never allowing them mistakes creates a medical system that sets all of us up to fail.


(photo: Scrubs.com)

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