RU’s bioethics symposium poses questions about medical ethics in a modern world

Radford University hosted a bioethics symposium on Tuesday, Sept. 17th 2013.

The symposium, which was held by Dr. Michael Gillette, highlighted important points about the growing bioethics field and its possibilities for Philosophy majors.

This symposium showed that there are career options for those who choose to study philosophy in undergrad and that the ethical skills taught in this area of study are needed to navigate the complex ethical issues that surround the medical field. Dr. Gillette also stressed the importance of practical medical knowledge to the average bioethics student. Though philosophy is still needed in today’s world, classical philosophy is no longer widely applicable in a non-academic setting. The ethical issues posed by the modern world, he implied, can only be answered using a combination of ethical, legal and scientific rhetoric.

Dr. Gillette illustrated this by posing the case of Ms. A, an egregiously ill woman with no hope of recovery who had entered a Persistent Vegetative State (or a PVS). Her physician maintained that she was futilely suffering with no

A flying saucer. Graphic by Haylie Wise.
A flying saucer. Graphic by Haylie Wise.

hope of ever achieving full function again. The family wished to institute all life-saving measures; the surgeon viewed this as futile. When do the rights of the parents end, and the rights of the doctor begin?

The discussion broke up this issue into three parts. Are the parents abusive or negligent? If the parents are abusive or negligent, the doctor has the right to pursue action within the court and have parental rights revoked.

If negligence or abuse can’t be proven, then the doctor has the right to deny treatment only if he can prove that the requested treatment is inconsistent with his practice’s standard of care. In this case, the doctor would have had to prove that his practice doesn’t ordinarily institute life-saving measures in cases like Ms. A’s. He would have had to allow time for a transfer to happen (about 14 days in most jurisdictions).

In this particular case, the doctor couldn’t prove that any of the above conditions were true, and had to provide treatment to this woman in the way they specified. The answer was immediately clear to the insurance company and to the doctor because of the way the argument was approached.

This case highlighted important issues behind the duty of a doctor in a society where things like brain death and persistent vegetative states are both possible and plausible. How do you decide when it’s time to give up on someone who is unlikely to ever recover? Is it the duty of the doctor to rationally make this decision for the good of the patient, or is it the family’s duty? And where are the lines? Dr. Gillette emphasized the need for philosophers in a world that has its fair share of philosophical conundrums.

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