Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Medical Amnesty and Responsibility

By Kari Kjos

Several colleges have passed Medical Amnesty policies over the past 20 years to address the problem of student drinking. These policies shield students from punishment when they call for medical help during an emergency related to alcohol or other drugs. Naturally, students tend to approve of Medical Amnesty policies as they take away negative consequences for student drinking.

Although I acknowledge the potential merits of a Medical Amnesty proposal, I think it is important for students to really step back and think about the overall effects that passing a Medical Amnesty policy might have. I would pose three main questions:

First off, do you think Medical Amnesty encourages responsibility or irresponsbility among students?

Proponents of Medical Amnesty believe that the policy encourages students to be responsible and call the EMTs for necesary medical care because it assures students they will not get in trouble for calling for help. I acknowledge that such a policy would encourage students to call for medical help and likely increase the number of alcohol-related calls to the EMTs. But, will this policy have the unintended effect of encouraging heavy drinking among students? Judicial immunity detaches drunk students from the negative consequences associated with their risky behavior. If students are not held accountable for their potentially dangerous behavior, they may not see any reason to change their drinking habits. Students may continue to drink irresponsibly, since they know that they will not get in trouble when something goes wrong. Medical Amnesty encourages students to make the responsible decision to call the EMTs when there is an emergenc--but it does not address preventing such heavy drinking in the first place. Is it responsible to drink that much, or to let your friend drink that much? Medical Amensty only focuses on treating the symptoms of the problem but may have the unintended side effect of aggravating the incidence of high-risk drinking on campus.

Secondly, do you think that by passing a Medical Amnesty proposal, a university condones underage student drinking?

Colleges treat underage alcohol violations in a very different way from law enforcement. At Santa Clara University, Campus Safety and Community Facilitators have the authority to write students up for drinking. Sanctions vary and include university fines, parental notification, community service, and alcohol education classes. Yet if underage students were caught drinking on the streets, they could be fined, face legal consequences like such as Minor in Possession charges, and even be detained for a night in jail if they were dangerously intoxicated. A medical amnesty policy, granting judicial immunity from alcohol sanctions, would further increase the disparity between punishments in college versus the real world. Why should college students, as legal adults, not be held accountable for their actions? Colleges pass Medical Amnesty policies on the assumption that students will continue to drink on campus. While this is likely true, is this policy encouraging more drinking on campus by removing the consequences students would face off-campus and in the real world?

Lastly, how do university policies reflect the values the institution aims to instill in students?

One of Santa Clara's goals is to teach its students the 3 C's: conscience, competence, and compassion. Does the Medical Amnesty policy reflect these three values? Does Medical Amnesty encourage students to develop their conscience, to take responsibility for their actions and accept consequences when they have made a mistake? Does it encourage students to be competent and make informed choices? Does it promote students to act compassionately toward their peers?

Medical Amnesty makes the right choice--to call for necessary medical help--the easy choice, for students face no punishment. But what happens when the right choice is not the easy choice? Will students still make the right choice, even if they know they will have to face the consequences? Medical Amnesty encourages students to make the right choice, but it does not prepare them to make difficult decisions after graduation, when they will be held accountable for their actions. I personally think it is kind of sad that students need assurance that no one will get in trouble in order to call for medical care. If your friend is passed out, wouldn't you rather be safe than sorry? Isn't a $50 fine and a few hours of community service worth potentially saving your friend's life? Compassion is about helping others and acting in their overall best interest, even when your own best interests may be at stake.

Most college students have been taught the symptons of alcohol poisioning: If untreated, alcohol poisioning can cause vomiting, slow or irregular breathing, irregular or stopped heart beats, hypoglycemia, hypothermia, and in acute cases, can even lead to seizures, brain damange and death. These are serious symptoms, and I agree it is important to encourage students to seek the necessary medical care when they are showing these symptoms. If Medical Amnesty is indeed passed, I think it is important that it be incorporated into a larger culture of promoting responsible drinking. Medical Amnesty by itself only encourages you to be responsible at the end of a Saturday night when your friend is already passed out on the floor. But should students only start being responsible then? What choices did students make earlier that evening to get to that point? I believe we need to extend this notion of taking responsibility for our actions, encourage making conscious and competent choices, and ultimately to act compassionately toward ourselves and our peers.

Karis Kjos is a senior at Santa Clara University and a Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

November 2009

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