How Do We Decide Who Should Decide?

Posted by: Stephen Miller - Oakwood Friends School, Marist College
Designed for: College/University, High School, Middle School
Estimated Time Necessary: This should be able to complete in 45-60 minutes
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Medical Ethics and the State


The role of the state (government) in Medical Ethics can be quite complex.  In these two articles, two perspectives are explored.  The famous Baby Theresa case involves a situation where the state prevents parents from acting to share their dying daughter’s organs.  The second case concerns a decision by Michigan to compel a surgical procedure.  There are a large number of dilemmas that arise in this case, such as who should decide, who is a person, when someone is dead, how parents, religion and the state should interact.  The first article articulates a classic deontological (Kantian-style) argument as to why Theresa is a person, and therefore should be kept alive.  The second article approaches the issue from the standpoint of the common good.

These articles are not aiming to resolve these basic moral arguments.  They are a good starting point for getting students to see how arguments for both sides could be laid out, both the Killing People is Wrong Argument and the Greatest Benefits Argument.  In doing so, the question of resolving personhood comes to the fore.

Who should decide who decides?

Two articles: Baby Theresa and Michigan May Compel Surgery

How Do We Decide Who Should Decide?

Possible Discussion Questions
  1. What is the medical dilemma in each case (keeping in mind that it's only a dilemma if it has reasonable arguments on both sides)?
  2. Who is involved here? What role does every stakeholder play?
  3. What is the Killing People is Wrong Argument?
  4. What is the Greatest Benefits Argument?
  5. What should one do in a situation where two arguments with reasonable and nearly universally-held premises come to mutually exclusive conclusions?
  6. Why should parents not have Absolute Rights to decide medical decisions about their children?
  7. What role should the state play here?
  8. How does the question of personhood fit in here?

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