Critical Care

Terminal Illness and The Right Not to Know

The parents of a young woman named Vickie Harvey, who tragically died at the age of 24 from acute myeloid leukaemia, have launched a campaign to give patients the right not to know that they are terminally ill.  Eric and Lyn Harvey claim that their daughter lost the will to live when, after her leukaemia returned following a period of remission, doctors told her ‘in graphic detail’ how she would now succumb to her disease. Eric Harvey told the Daily Mail:

After [Vickie was about her prognosis] she changed – and never really got out of bed again. We knew she was dying, but we feel that, if she hadn’t been told that day, she would have lasted longer’. Continue reading

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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‘Precarious (Bio)ethics: Research on Poisoning Patients in Sri Lanka’

On 9 May 2013, Salla Sariola, from ETHOX, gave a fascinating talk at the St Cross Ethics Seminar, based on work done collaboratively with Bob Simpson (Durham). The presentation focused on the large number of self-poisonings which have been taking place in Sri Lanka, often using lethal agricultural pesticides and herbicides unavailable in many developed countries. This presentation is now available as a podcast at the bottom right of the Oxford Uehiro Centre main webpage. Continue reading

What happens when you die

I have just watched someone die. Just one person. But a whole ecosystem has been destroyed. Everyone’s roots wind round everyone else’s. Rip up one person, and everyone else is compromised, whether they know it or not. This is true, too, for everything that is done to anyone. Death just points up, unavoidably, what is always the case.

This is trite. But it finds little place in bioethical or medico-legal talk. There, a human is a discrete bio-economic unit, and there’s a convention that one can speak meaningfully about its elimination without real reference to other units.

In some medico-legal contexts this is perhaps inevitable. There have to be some limits on doctors’ liability. Hence some notion of the doctor-patient relationship is probably inescapable, and the notion requires an artificially atomistic model of a patient.

But ethics can and should do better. Continue reading

Nine to five philosophers

Owen Barfield was lunching in C.S. Lewis’s rooms. Lewis, who was then a philosophy tutor, referred to  philosophy as ‘a subject’. ‘”It wasn’t a subject to Plato”, said Barfield, “It was a way.”’1

It would be dangerous for a modern professional philosopher to say that her philosophy was her ‘way’. I can well imagine the responses. ‘She’s lost objectivity’. ‘She’s a preacher, not an academic.’ ‘Most of us  were disabused in our first week as undergraduates of the childish notion that philosophy was about the meaning of life. She obviously missed that lecture. She was probably at a prayer meeting instead.’

For the scoffers, philosophy is a job. It’s something they do from nine to five. Then, when they leave the faculty, they walk out into the world of angst and bereavement and sick children, and begin, without reference to the day job, to try to puzzle out the meaning of the world and of their own place in it. The job, often, is about exactitude – about ensuring that every step in an examined argument is unimpeachably rigorous. But stop and ask them whether, as a result of the rigour, the argument can now be relied upon to change conduct, and they’ll stop, scratch their heads, and look at you as if you’re simple.

I’m not really accusing them of hypocrisy – of failing to judge themselves by their own standards. For an allegation like that to stick you’d have to show that they knew that the world of the day job was the same as the world outside. The problem is that they don’t perceive the two worlds as having any connection at all. The diagnosis is non-integratedness. It would be unkind to translate it as lack of integrity.

Recently I was reading Charlie Camosy’s book Too expensive to treat? Finitude, Tragedy and the Neonatal  ICU2. It’s rather a good book, but its contents aren’t the point for the moment.

Charlie and I don’t always see eye to eye. He’s a Catholic, for a start, with far too much respect for old dead men for my comfort. But the tone of the book struck me. Here was someone doing philosophy because the answers mattered. He’d unfashionably remembered that ‘philosophy’ means the love of wisdom. He approached the issues reverentially but insistently, determined not to let them go until he knew that they had something useful to say to  an artificially ventilated child.

No, this doesn’t mean that the book is a Catholic polemic; or that he’s mainly interested in crafting an argument that accords with the ruling Encyclicals; or that he’s trying to ensure his back will be covered when he next slinks into a confessional;  or that it’s a set of inevitable inferences from a set of a priori assumptions; or that it’s humourless, earnest,  preachy or fanatical. Let alone correct. It’s just a book by all of someone, with the intention of deriving principles that  apply to whole, real, humans, rather than to an abstracted portion of a human, or a pastiche of a human. It’s written to appeal to reason, conscience, intuition and hospital accountants, rather than to the Chairmen of grant-giving authorities and tenure committees. It’s the work of someone with a conjoined personal and professional life. That should be unremarkable. It’s actually very unusual.

That it is so unusual is a big problem both for philosophy and philosophers.

[Conflict of interest: Charlie Camosy is a friend. Come to think of it, that's hardly a conflict of interest. He wouldn't stop being a friend if I hadn't written this, won't be more of a friend because I have, and I won't be getting a cut of any book sales this blog might generate.]

References

1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Geoffrey Bles, 1955

2. Eerdmans, 2010

Patient L’s Autonomy

‘Patient L’ is a man in a vegetative state, under the care of Pennine Acute Hospitals Trust. The Trust has placed a Do Not Rescuscitate order in his notes, yet his family claim that he himself would want to be revived if his condition deteriorated, because of his faith in Islam. The court of protection has now decided in favour of the Trust.

The Trust’s claim is that it is in Patient L’s best interests to be allowed to die, whereas Patient L himself – if we are to believe his family (and there seems little reason not to) – would almost certainly disagree. Continue reading

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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The Continuing Tragedies of Home Birth and the Rights of the Future Child

By Lach De Crespigny and Julian Savulescu

Windsor Coroner’s Court has heard that a mother died within hours of giving birth at home after a private midwife committed a horrifying catalogue of errors . According to reports, the woman had previously delivered twins by emergency caesarean section, one of which later died. Her husband said his wife was ‘brainwashed’ into having a home birth by the midwife, who insisted it was safe. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advise delivery in hospital after caesarean section so that an emergency caesarean delivery can be carried out if necessary. The midwife denied trying to persuade the couple to have a home birth. However she has greater responsibilities than this; as professionals we should try to persuade women to deliver in hospital if this is a safer option. But the midwife seems to have prioritized homebirth over life itself when she reportedly stated:

“Claire had a great pregnancy, she had a really lovely spontaneous birth at home and I hope Simon in time will remember that”

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