Sunday, November 19, 2006


Several weeks ago I wrote about Dr. Mary Hanna, who had received $184,000 toward her medical education from the U.S. Army in exchange for committing herself to four years of active duty and four years of reserve duty once she had become a doctor. In December 2005, however, as she was completing her medical residency, Hanna notified the Army that she wanted reclassification as a conscientious objector, based on religious beliefs that she recently had embraced.

As reported in The Boston Globe, Hanna wrote in her application for conscientious-objector status that she felt that she would betray "moral and religious principles by participating in war in any way." The Army denied her initial request, but she appealed.

I asked my readers if they thought that Hanna was morally bound to carry out the commitment she had made to the Army, even if she repays the money with interest, as her lawyer says she is willing to do? Or did her new religious obligation trump her previous contractual agreement?

Not surprisingly, I received a tremendous amount of reader response.

"A contract is a contract," writes Red Wolfe of Melbourne, Fla., speaking for many of my readers. "Buying out is not, nor should it be, an option. So suck it up and do the honorable thing and do your duty as per your contract, regardless of second thoughts."

Jean Crawford, a former Army nurse who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., served three years of active duty in exchange for receiving a salary from the Army while completing her nursing degree. Hanna's offer to repay the debt doesn't resolve anything, she writes, because the Army could have used that money to help someone else through medical school "who would have served without whining."

Crawford believes that being a conscientious objector is perfectly consistent with being an Army doctor.

"She would have the opportunity to treat not only her fellow soldiers, but also the wounded enemy and wounded civilians -- a very, very conscientious thing to do," she says.

Many readers point out that physicians are noncombatants who do not carry guns.

"They are not expected to fight," writes Gwen Wooldridge of Huntington Beach, Calif., "just cure."

A number of readers expressed suspicion of Hanna's recent, "convenient" conversion into a conscientious objector.

Even some of those who are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, however, believe that it should be the Army's decision, not hers, as to whether Hanna should serve her terms of active and reserve duty. If the Army needs medical staff, writes Dave Marohl of Sun Prairie, Wis., it would be wrong to let her off the hook.

"The choice should be their option," he writes, "rather than given to the person who has chosen to duck her responsibilities."

Readers such as Phil Clutts of Harrisburg, N.C., believe that the Army should accept Hanna's offer to repay the money and relieve her of her obligation.

Requiring her "to meet her contractual -- and moral -- obligation to the Army could backfire," writes Clutts, who is concerned that she might be so distressed by her internal conflicts as to be unable to function effectively. "Why take the chance, if the government can get its money back?"

Since I posed my question to readers, the case has gone to trial and a federal judge has reversed the Army's decision, ruling that Hanna must be discharged from the Army as a conscientious objector.

That was the legal verdict, but was it, independent of the niceties of the law, the right thing to do? I don't believe so.

Hanna would have been wise to raise her concerns well before the precise moment that her call to duty was coming due. But faith doesn't work on a timetable, and I don't question her claim that this is a matter of faith.

What troubles me, rather, is her conclusion that she cannot conscientiously be involved with the military in any way.

As several of my readers point out, her role as a physician would make her a noncombatant. If she feels that, even so, she cannot treat soldiers or civilians who are injured during war because she disapproves of war, how does that translate into nonmilitary contexts? I agree with Mary Burson, a reader from Laguna Niguel, Calif., who finds Hanna's objections too simplistic.

"As a civilian physician," Burson writes, "she would conscientiously object to smoking, drug addiction, overeating and gang activity, but she would not refuse to treat patients whose ailments or injuries resulted from these causes. It would be morally wrong."

Hanna made a commitment, and that commitment does not vanish because she now sees it in a different light. She is obligated to avoid viewing the situation in black-and-white and instead to make more of an effort to find a way in which her newfound religious sensibilities and her earlier contractual obligation can be rationalized.

Her faith may, for example, prohibit her from doing anything that would enable a wounded soldier to return to the battleground and prolong the war. But that prohibition would probably not extend to barring her from using her skills stateside, at a veteran's hospital, treating wounded soldiers who will never see battle again. Perhaps this sort of compromise would satisfy the Army, perhaps not -- but it is Hanna's responsibility to explore every alternative, rather than simply folding up her cards and going home.

As for the Army's responsibilities in the case, Hanna has the same right to apply for conscientious-objector status that anyone else has, and the Army has the moral obligation to take her application seriously. It would be wrong for reviewers to approach her application prejudiced by the suspicion that her religious conversion is the result of cowardice or the desire to earn more money in civilian practice.

It is obligated to consider her application carefully and without prejudice, in short, but it is not obligated to grant her conscientious-objector status if, in the Army's opinion, she does not qualify for it. And, like Hanna herself, the Army leadership should avoid either/or scenarios and try to find a way for her to serve out her obligation without dismissing out of hand her religious objections.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

I believe that Ms. (Dr.?) Hanna most certainly does have an obligation to repay her debt to the government and you and me. I don't think, even, that a monetary repayment is sufficient.

There is no reason she can not serve, even though she is a conscientious objector. I would refer you to the record of a gentleman named Desmond Doss, who was originally from Lynchburg, VA and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on April 3 last. Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist who could have been a conscientious objector in WWII. However, he still respected his country and desired to help, so he volunteered to be a medical corpsman. He served heroically in the some of the worst battles, saved many lives, and received the only Congressional Medal of Honor ever bestowed on a conscientious objector. You can read about him on the web at

My only caveat is that the world's philosophy of ethics seems to have skewed so much since WWII days that I would want someone more experienced and wiser than I to evaluate this woman to be sure that she could and would uphold her Hippocratic oath.


Mary L. Dodge

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Seglin,

Your column falls short, because it fails to include that there is a lack of logic in the practice of Conscientious Objection.

Now except for the fact that she already served her time in the Armed Forces that makes her an exception; the conflict, that most of those who practice Conscientious Objection fail to see is, the debt they owe to the rest of most Americans. Certainly, we all have our freedoms in this nation to believe and practice what we want. But those freedoms must be protected by force when necessary.

Freedoms aren’t free and must be defended from the dictating tyrants of the world, many of which would not hesitate to scrap our constitution and freedoms and dictate to Americans. Then who would be allowed to practice Conscientious Objection? NOBODY!!!

This is not Rocket Science Mr. Seglin.


Anonymous said...

Addendum to my first letter e-mailed earlier this AM -- re- Hanna

After I sent my first letter, some thoughts crystallilzed , or maybe I just had that common reaction where one thinks of what one should have said and didn't.

The more I think about it I am not sure that this young woman is mentally, morally, stable enough to become a doctor even in civilian life. She doesn't seem to realize that commitment is the backbone of anyone in the medical profession. I hope that she is well-evaluated before receiving any MD designation. I don't want her for my doctor!

Mary L. Dodge, Lynchburg, VA

Anonymous said...

Hanna needs to meet the contractual agreement with the Army. I am so tired of people trying to find ways to get money for a free education, then all of a sudden some religious obligation takes over. There should be no retraction in this incident. She needs to just do the right thing and serve her country as promised. As another reader commented, someone else could have used this opportunity.

Anonymous said...

I stand by my own position: she should re-pay every penny she was given, AND re-pay it a second time to cover the cost of training her replacement. And until she has done so, she should be banned from receiving ANY federal funding -- even Medicare and Medicaid -- from the government that controls the military she so fervently rejects.

And as others note, it seems that her pacifism trumps her Hippcratic Oath, which would otherwise compel her to treat those wounded in battle regardless of circumstances. On that basis, as well as her rejection of her commitment to the Army, should give pause to any hospital that might consider offering her a position.


Anonymous said...

(Previous comment by Jay Tea of -- forgot to sign it.)

Anonymous said...

11/20.06 - Doctor gets schooling from the Army
Dr. Mary Hanna received $184,000 toward her medical education.

High School is boring to most students. We need more JROTC Program while in high school. A bonus when they complete the training.

That $10,000 we now give state colleges to help with entrance exams should be given to the students, not the state college. Many drop out the first year.

We have a shortage of nurses. I question why we don't bring back hospital based schools in nursing?

Mary J. McLaughlin

Anonymous said...

I served in the USMC 1950-55 and then went to college and finally to medical school , internship and residency, and started practice at the beginning of the Vietnam War.
Although I still had to carry a draft card till the age of 35, I was never called up . As a
Doctor, we had Conscientious Objectors, Amish boys, working in the hospital doing their two years of service instead of going into service . I see no reason why this Dr. Mary Hanna should not serve out her obligation assigned to a Federal Hospital somewhere in an needy community or prison. Maybe her name has something to do with her refusing service, most Hanna's are from Arab Countries.

H.J. Lewis, M.D.

Anonymous said...

i object! pin a scarlet letter on the shingle over her door. make
everyone aware of her breach of contract and abandonment of our military so they can use their right to choose an another doctor. guess that might cut into her finances.

by the way, on the 'history and physical' does she plan on asking if the patient ever served in the military or has a family member in the military.

wienie!!! she just wanted a different life than the one she signed up for. may or may not have been the plan all along but she surely knew before she completed her degree and could have brought that to someone's
attention before it was time to 'ship out'.

i have friends who have earned their medical degree in the military. they fullfiled their committment and we are all proud of them. taking advantage of the system is neither acceptable or honorable.

i hope everyone boycotts her practice.

Anonymous said...

I find it disgraceful that while there are true CO's who are genuine in their beliefs that there are those like Ms. Hanna that pull the CO card at the 11th hour. All this does is creedence to negative perceptions of conscientious objectors. She should have to pay back, and do some sort of time to compensate the military!

British Columbia