Dominic Wilkinson

How much transparency?

By Dominic Wilkinson (Twitter: @Neonatalethics)

There are reports in the press this week that the remains of 86 unborn fetuses were kept in a UK hospital mortuary for months or even years longer than they should have been. The majority were fetuses less than 12 weeks gestation. According to the report, this arose because of administrative error and a failure to obtain the necessary permissions for cremation.

The hospital has publicly apologized, and set up an enquiry into the error. They are planning to cremate the remaining fetuses. However, they have decided not to contact all of the families and women whose fetal remains were kept on the basis that this would likely cause a greater amount of distress.

Is this the right approach? Guidelines and teaching in medical schools encourage health-care professionals and institutions to own up to their errors and disclose them to patients. Is it justifiable then to not reveal errors on the grounds that this would be too upsetting? How much transparency is desirable in healthcare?

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Cultural relativism and female genital mutilation

The Guardian newspaper has today launched a campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). This coincides with evidence that, despite being illegal, a significant number of young women from the UK undergo the practice. Globally, more than 125 million living women have had some form of FGM performed.

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The Texan flautist and the fetus

Imagine that when you woke up this morning, you found yourself lying next to an unconscious stranger. The stranger has a rare life-threatening illness, and unbeknownst to you he was plugged in to your organs during the night. You are now stuck to the stranger. If you disconnect the life support he will die. If, though, you remain connected to him for most of the next year his illness will have recovered, and he can safely ben unplugged. What should you do? Are you obliged to stay attached to the stranger? It might be generous of you to give up your body, and good if you choose to do so, but should we require you to remain connected?

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Should exceptional people receive exceptional medical treatment?

There are approximately 150,000 human deaths each day around the world. Most of those deaths pass without much notice, yet in the last ten days one death has received enormous, perhaps unprecedented, attention. The death and funeral of Nelson Mandela have been accompanied by countless pages of newsprint and hours of radio and television coverage. Much has been made of what was, by any account, an extraordinary life. There has been less attention, though, on Mandela’s last months and days. One uncomfortable question has not been asked. Was it ethical for this exceptional individual to receive treatment that would be denied to almost everyone else? Continue reading

Keeping pace?

If you receive an implanted pacemaker for your heart, does it become your property? When it is no longer any use to you (because you have died), do you have to give it back?

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Watch your words! The challenges of law around the end of life

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.

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Obligatory Ventilation: why Elective Ventilation should not be elective

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

Back from the grave: Should we allow Elective Ventilation?

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

Nothing to lose? Killing is disabling

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

The moral case for elective caesarean section

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

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