Ethicists Ethicizing In Public About A Specific Case: Should They?
I received the following e-mail today which I thought raised an important topic about ethics discussion. I have deleted those portions of the e-mail that might in any way identify the writer.
Hi Dr. Bernstein,
I'm a newspaper reporter in [state name deleted]. I ran across your blog and this page while researching a story (specifically, I googled bioethics and withholding medical treatment, and your post of Dec. 10, 2005 popped up.)
We're working on a story about the death of an 11-year-old girl (reportedly of [named disease deleted]) after her parents chose prayer over medical treatment. I'm looking for people well-versed in bioethics who can talk about that decision.
If you would be willing to share your expertise, I would be grateful. I can be reached at [phone number deleted], or on my cell phone at [phone number deleted].
[first name deleted]
I wrote back the following which I think covers my view of the subject satisfactorily but are there some aspects of my argument that you find wrong or incomplete? ..Maurice.
[first name deleted], here is the problem I think that all "bioethicists" who speak in the public media should recognize before speaking as requested about a specific case: the full facts are unknown and perhaps unavailable and any comment about the ethics of a specific case is thereby faulty. The facts are essential basis for an ethical decision regarding some action. Each case is different from another and that is why our hospital ethics committee, in consultation, for example, may spend an hour or more with the stakeholders involved in the case-- to get all the facts including the viewpoints of each of them. Now, you may argue that what you are interested in is only my opinion regarding the general issue of the ethics of prayer vs medical treatment for a child. I might be able to do that but your writing of my opinion will still be in the context of the specific [state name deleted] case. And this is the concern amongst bioethicists about the broadcasting opinions to the public by their colleagues or in fact by anyone not closely involved in the case. The Terry Schiavo case would be a relatively recent example of public statements made by ethicists and other "important people" without full knowledge and understanding of all the facts. One other point, telephone conversations with the ethicist may lead to misinterpretations of the comments of either party and misspeaking. Written communication allows time to consider nuances in the questions and responses to be more objectively and effectively handled. Sorry..but good luck. ..Maurice.
p.s.- By the way, the issue of bioethicists speaking to the public about a case might be a good topic for an article. If so, you may use my comments above.