by Dominic Wilkinson
Here in South Australia last week, a bill has been proposed to clarify the legal status of advance directives. One very small part of that bill involves a modification to an older palliative care act. The modification corrects an ambiguity in wording in the earlier act. The ambiguity is subtle. However, that choice of words has had major consequences for seriously ill children and adults in South Australia and for health practitioners. It is a salutary reminder of how hard it is to enact good laws in the area of end of life, and how easily such laws can make things worse rather than better.
On the BBC’s Moral Maze this evening, the question of elective ventilation was discussed at some length. (For those who missed it, the program is still available here). There were several striking features of that discussion, but one argument that stood out was the argument against elective ventilation based on the importance of respecting the autonomy of patients, and the absence of consent, This has been the basis of previous ethical concerns about Elective Ventilation.
But actually, it seems to me that the consent/autonomy argument is completely upside down.* Patient autonomy provides one of the strongest arguments in favour of elective ventilation. So strong, in fact, that the proposed form of Elective Ventilation should arguably not be ‘elective’. It is morally obligatory that we embrace Elective Ventilation. Continue reading
Mary is 62 years old. She is brought to hospital after she collapsed suddenly at home. Her neighbour found her unconscious, and called the ambulance. When they arrived she was deeply unconscious and at risk of choking on her own secretions. They put a breathing tube in her airway, and transported her urgently to hospital.
When Mary arrives she is found to have suffered a massive stroke. A brain scan shows very severe bleeding inside her brain. In fact the picture on the scan and her clinical state is described by the x-ray specialist as ‘devastating’. She is not clinically brain dead, but there is no hope. The emergency department doctors have contacted the neurosurgical team, but they have decided not to proceed with surgery as her chance of recovery is so poor.
In Mary’s situation, the usual course of events is to contact family members urgently, to explain to them that there is nothing more that can be done, and to remove her breathing tube in the emergency department. She would be likely to die within minutes or hours. She would not be admitted to the intensive care unit – if called, the ICU team would be likely to say that she is not a “candidate” for intensive care. However, new guidance from the National Institute of Clinical Effectiveness, released late last year, and endorsed in a new British Medical Association working paper, has proposed a radical change to this usual course of events. Continue reading
In a provocative article forthcoming in the Journal of Medical Ethics (one of a new series of feature articles in the journal) philosophers Walter Sinnott Armstrong and Franklin Miller ask ‘what makes killing wrong?’ Their simple and intuitively appealing answer is that killing is wrong because it strips an individual of all of their abilities – acting, moving, communicating, thinking and feeling.
So what, you might ask? If this is right, say Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller, it means that it would be just as bad to commit an act that caused someone to be in a permanent vegetative state, as it would to kill them. Continue reading
Should a father dive into a flowing stream to aid his daughter, struggling to keep her head above water? Should a mother donate a kidney to her child with renal failure? Is it ethical for a parent to work two or three jobs so that they can pay private health insurance or school fees for their children? In all of these situations most of us would think that it is commendable for a parent to take these actions. We applaud and approve of a parent who decides to take on some personal risk, who sacrifices his or her own wellbeing and health in order to prevent a risk of serious harm to their child. It is one of the duties of a parent to do whatever they reasonably can to avoid risks and secure benefits to their children. How morally important it is for parents to make these sacrifices depends on the balance between the risks to the child and those to the parent. But it is appropriate for a parent to give greater weight to the risks to their child than to themselves. Indeed we might well be critical of a parent who failed to do so.
What then, of a mother who decides to undergo abdominal surgery in order to reduce the risk of her child suffering brain injury, or being admitted to intensive care? Shouldn’t we also applaud this decision? Continue reading
by Dominic Wilkinson
If a patient’s family refuse to allow withdrawal of breathing machines should doctors provide long-term support in an intensive care unit for a patient who is clinically brain dead? Should doctors provide heart-lung bypass (ECMO) for a child with anencephaly? Should doctors perform a tracheostomy and provide a long-term breathing machine for a patient in a documented persistent vegetative state? Continue reading
A new study from the Mayo clinic in the United States points to a frequent problem in certain types of medical research. When healthy volunteers or patients with a given condition take part in research studies they may have brain scans, CAT scans, blood tests or genetic tests that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. These tests are not done for the benefit of the individual, they are designed to answer a research question. But sometimes, quite often according to the authors of this new study, researchers may spot something on the scan that shouldn’t be there, and that could indicate a previously undiagnosed health condition. These ‘incidental findings’ generate an ethical dilemma for researchers. Should they tell the research participant about the shadow seen on their scan? Do they have an obligation to reveal to a research participant that they have found them to carry a gene increasing their risk for breast cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease? There is much agonising by ethics committees, ethicists and researchers about the problem of incidental findings, but there is a simple way of avoiding the problem. Anonymise research databases and tests so that there is no possibility of determining which participant has the breast cancer gene, or the lump in their kidney.
A fascinating study in the Lancet this week has suggested that a very commonly used and simple analgesic in newborn infants may not actually be preventing them from experiencing pain. The study’s authors suggest that this medicine should no longer be used routinely in newborn infants. A headline in the Guardian reads “Newborn babies should not be given sugar as pain relief”. But there are scientific, philosophical and ethical reasons why this conclusion, though possibly correct, is premature.
In New York state last week legislators passed an extraordinary bill that, effectively, indicts the practice of New York doctors. That the bill was thought necessary, and, even more so, that it was opposed by the Medical Society of New York is a sad reflection of medical practice in that part of the world.
In a paper released today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a large survey of UK doctors found that doctors’ religion influenced their views and practice of end-of-life care. Why does this matter? A number of headlines highlighted that atheist or agnostic doctors were more likely to report having participated in “ethically contentious end-of life actions”: ie taking part in terminal sedation or in actions that they expected or partly intended would hasten the patient’s death. But other headlines emphasised the obvious flip-side: doctors who identified themselves as ‘very religious’ or ‘extremely religious’ were about 35% less likely than non-religious doctors to report having taken this sort of step.