Cases in Medical Ethics: Student-Led Discussions
by Chris Cirone
I was a Hackworth Fellow for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
at Santa Clara University. I was also a pre-medical student, and am currently
attending the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. During
my senior year at Santa Clara, I led discussions on medical ethics with
students interested in medicine. The purpose of these discussions was
two-fold. First, they were created to help bring current ethical issues
onto our campus. Second, they were intended to help students who were
interested in a career in the health sciences determine whether or not
medicine is their correct calling. Most of the discussions followed a
simple format. One to two cases were formulated for the students to read.
Then I presented the students with various questions related to some of
the ethical issues contained in the situations described. The following
cases are the ones that I presented to the groups. Each case also has
a short history and summary of the ethical issues being reviewed. The
questions I asked of the students are included as well. These cases and
questions are public domain, and can be re-used or modified for educational
purposes. I hope that you find them useful, and that they spawn the same
thoughtful enjoyment in you as they did in me.
Note: The cases were not based on specific events. However, it
is possible that they share similarities with actual events. These similarities
were not intended.
Autonomy essentially means "self rule," and it is a patient's
most basic right. As such, it is a health care worker's responsibility
to respect the autonomy of her patients. However, at times this can be
difficult because it can conflict with the paternalistic attitude of many
health care professionals. The following two cases address patient autonomy.
The first involves the rights of an individual to decide her own fate,
even against her physicians' judgments. The second case involves the rights
of a parent to care for her child in the manner that she sees fit.
A woman enters the emergency room with stomach pain. She undergoes a
CT scan and is diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a weakening
in the wall of the aorta which causes it to stretch and bulge (this is
very similar to what led to John Ritter's death). The physicians inform
her that the only way to fix the problem is surgically, and that the chances
of survival are about 50/50. They also inform her that time is of the
essence, and that should the aneurysm burst, she would be dead in a few
short minutes. The woman is an erotic dancer; she worries that the surgery
will leave a scar that will negatively affect her work; therefore, she
refuses any surgical treatment. Even after much pressuring from the physicians,
she adamantly refuses surgery. Feeling that the woman is not in her correct
state of mind and knowing that time is of the essence, the surgeons decide
to perform the procedure without consent. They anesthetize her and surgically
repair the aneurysm. She survives, and sues the hospital for millions
Questions for Case 1:
Do you believe that the physician's actions can be justified in any
Is there anything else that they could have done?
Is it ever right to take away someone's autonomy? (Would a court
order make the physicians' decisions ethical?)
What would you do if you were one of the health care workers?
You are a general practitioner and a mother comes into your office with
her child who is complaining of flu-like symptoms. Upon entering the room,
you ask the boy to remove his shirt and you notice a pattern of very distinct
bruises on the boy's torso. You ask the mother where the bruises came
from, and she tells you that they are from a procedure she performed on
him known as "cao gio," which is also known as "coining."
The procedure involves rubbing warm oils or gels on a person's skin with
a coin or other flat metal object. The mother explains that cao gio is
used to raise out bad blood, and improve circulation and healing. When
you touch the boy's back with your stethoscope, he winces in pain from
the bruises. You debate whether or not you should call Child Protective
Services and report the mother.
Questions for Case 2:
Should we completely discount this treatment as useless, or could
there be something gained from it?
When should a physician step in to stop a cultural practice? (If
someone answers "when it harms the child" remind that person
that there is some pain in many of our medical procedures, for example,
having one's tonsils removed)
Should the physician be concerned about alienating the mother and
other people of her ethnicity from modern medicine?
Do you think that the physician should report the mother?
Autonomy Part 2
Maintenance of patient autonomy is one of the major ethical focuses of
physicians. Therefore, a second discussion was also held that focused
primarily on patient autonomy. This discussion also took a superficial
look at euthanasia. For this discussion, a 58 minute video, Dax's Case
(produced by Unicorn Media, for Concern for Dying ; produced by Donald
Pasquella, Keith Burton ; directed by Donald Pasquella New York : Filmakers
Library, c1984) was used. The video tells the story of Dax Cowart, a man
who was severely burned by an accidental propane explosion. The burns
disabled Dax, and the physicians forced treatment on him. Though he survived
the treatment, he still argues that he should have been allowed to refuse
it so that he could die. The video is very useful; however, the videos
of Dax's burn treatments are very graphic and the video should be reviewed
before it is shown to a group of students.
In the video, one of the physicians says that burn patients are incompetent
to make decisions when they first enter the hospital because they
are in such a great deal of pain. However, patients such as Dax can
be in a great deal of pain for a very long time. In such cases, what
should be done to determine competence, and when should this be done?
Do you think the fact that Dax could not see a future for himself
should have been taken into account when determining his competency?
Could this have clouded his judgment? (He thought that he would end
up on the street corner selling pencils)
Do you think that the fact that Dax was going to recover, and had
the possibility of living a happy life, made not treating Dax like
or murder? What if he did not have this possibility?
After his recovery, Dax attempted suicide. Should the physicians
have let him die? Is it ever correct for a doctor to allow a patient
to kill himself?
Do you ever think that it is correct for a physician to break a competent
patient's autonomy? If so, is this one of those cases?
Do you think that in this case, that the ends justified the means?
The word "euthanasia" draws its roots from Greek meaning "good
death." As it is used in this discussion, it means "the act
of ending the life of a person suffering from either a terminal illness,
or an incurable disease." The AMA is against physicians assisting
in euthanasia. There is currently only one state in the US that allows
for euthanasia, and that is Oregon, where in 1997, the "Death With
Dignity Act" went into effect. Euthanasia advocates stress that it
should be allowed as an extension of a person's autonomy. Those who are
against euthanasia often say that it can lead to the devaluation of human
life, and to a slippery slope in which the old and disabled will be killed
on the whims of healthy people. We examined one case and the Oregon law
to view the ethics of euthanasia.
A woman was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (the same
disease that Stephen Hawking has) 5 years ago. This is a condition that
destroys motor nerves, making control of movement impossible, while the
mind is virtually unaffected. People with motor neurone disease normally
die within 4 years of diagnosis from suffocation due to the inability
of the inspiratory muscles to contract. The woman's condition has steadily
declined. She is not expected to live through the month, and is worried
about the pain that she will face in her final hours. She asks her doctor
to give her diamorphine for pain if she begins to suffocate or choke.
This will lessen her pain, but it will also hasten her death. About a
week later, she falls very ill, and is having trouble breathing.
Questions for Case 1:
Does she have a right to make this choice, especially in view of
the fact that she will be dead in a short while (say six hours)? Is
this choice an extension of her autonomy?
Is the short amount of time she has to live ethically relevant? Is
there an ethical difference between her dying in 6 hours and dying
in a week? What about a year, and how do you draw this distinction?
Is the right for a patient's self-determination powerful enough to
create obligations on the part of others to aid her so that she can
exercise her rights? She clearly cannot kill herself. She can't move,
but should someone be FORCED to help her, or to find someone to help
Should the money used to care for this woman be taken into account
when she is being helped? Do you think that legalizing euthanasia
could create conflicts of interest for the patient/ or the doctor?
Will people feel that they need to end their lives earlier to save
Ask each student: If you were the physician, what would you do? Note:
if you would pass her off to another doctor knowing he or she would
do it, does this free you from you ethical obligations?
Oregon's Death With Dignity Act:
Students were given the two paragraphs that are found on the following
web page: http://www.nightingalealliance.org/htmdocs/iss_a_p.htm.
We then discussed the following questions pertaining to the Death With
Death With Dignity Questions:
Look at the requirements for the request. Do you see any problems
with them? (The woman from case 1 would not qualify.)
Why would they put in these guidelines? Should they be there, if
they keep a competent person like the woman above from living her
autonomy? (Is it to protect the doctors so they will not have to GIVE
Is there a moral difference between prescribing the drug and actually
giving it to the patient? If not, why put in the rules?
Why do you think they wouldn't let a person who is terminally ill
and in pain with possibly more than 6 months receive assistance in
dying? Say someone is diagnosed with HIV?
Does the justification of euthanasia necessarily justify the assisted
suicide of a healthy person?
Do you think a weakness of this law is the probability of patients
being influenced by family members? (For example, for financial or
other reasons?) Note: Approximately 60% of Oregonians in 2000 said
(before they died) that they used the prescription at least in some
part due to fear of being a burden on their family.
The AMA says that euthanasia is fundamentally incompatible with the
physician's role as healer. What do you think about this statement?
Why should a physician have to be the one who does this?
This is a difficult subject because it involves reproductive issues.
In our culture, reproductive liberty, the freedom to decide when and where
to conceive a child is highly protected, and this can make these cases
much more difficult.
There are two types of surrogacy. One type involves a surrogate mother
who uses her own egg and carries the baby for someone else. The other
type is a "gestational surrogacy" in which the mother has no
genetic tie to the child she carries. In the case presented, a gestational
surrogate is used.
A woman, after a bout with uterine cancer had a hysterectomy (surgical
removal of the uterus). Before, its removal, however, she had several
eggs removed for possible fertilization in the future. Now married, the
woman wishes to have a child with her husband. Obviously she cannot bear
the child herself, so the couple utilizes a company to find a surrogate
mother for them. The husband's sperm is used to fertilize one of the wife's
eggs, and is implanted in the surrogate mother. The couple pays all of
the woman's pregnancy-related expenses and an extra $18,000 as compensation
for her surrogacy. After all expenses are taken into account the couple
pays the woman approximately $31,000 and the agency approximately $5,000.
Though the surrogate passed stringent mental testing to ensure she was
competent to carry another couple's child, after carrying the pregnancy
to term, the surrogate says that she has become too attached to "her"
child to give it up to the couple. A legal battle ensues.
Questions for Case 1:
In the United States it is illegal to pay a person for non-replenishable
organs. The fear is that money will influence the poor to harm their
bodies for the benefit of the rich. Do you see a parallel between
this case and this law? Can allowing surrogate mothers to be paid
for their troubles allow poorer women to be oppressed?
Does paying the surrogate harm her and/or the child's dignity?
Is it selfish/conceited for this couple to want children of their
own genetic make-up? If yes, does this change if you can "easily"
have a child? (Note: Over 100,000 children in the U.S. are waiting
to be adopted. However, most are older, have several siblings, or
have special needs.)
On their website, the AMA says "that surrogacy contracts [when
the surrogate uses her own egg], while permissible, should grant the
birth mother the right to void the contract within a reasonable period
of time after the birth of the child. If the contract is voided, custody
of the child should be determined according to the child's best interests."
Do you see any problems with this? (What's a reasonable time? In a
way can you steal the surrogate's child?)
One of the main arguments against the use of surrogate mothers is
that carrying and giving birth to a child is such an emotional event
that it is impossible to determine if the surrogate will be able to
give up the child. Though adults enter into the contract, the child
could ultimately suffer if a long custody battle ensues (as it could
in states where surrogacy contracts hold no legal value, such as Virginia).
With the possibility of such battles, do you think it is acceptable
for parents to use a surrogate mother?
Do you think that if the surrogate is awarded the baby, this could
cause emotional harm to the child?
Who do you think should receive the child, and why?
A married couple wishes to have a child; however, the 32 year old mother
knows that she is a carrier for Huntington's disease (HD). HD is a genetic
disorder that begins showing signs at anywhere from 35-45 years of age.
Its symptoms begin with slow loss of muscle control and end in loss of
speech, large muscle spasms, disorientation and emotional outbursts. After
15-20 years of symptoms HD ends in death. HD is a dominant disorder which
means that her child will have a 50% chance of contracting the disorder.
Feeling that risking their baby's health would be irresponsible, the couple
decides to use in vitro fertilization to fertilize several of the wife's
eggs. Several eggs are harvested, and using special technology, only eggs
that do not have the defective gene are kept to be fertilized. The physician
then fertilizes a single egg, and transfers the embryo to the mother.
Approximately 9 months later, the couple gives birth to a boy who does
not carry the gene for the disorder.
Is this a case of eugenics? "Eugenics" is defined as "the
hereditary improvement of the human race controlled by selective breeding"
Would it be acceptable for the parents to select for sex as well,
or should they only select an embryo that does not have HD? How would
this be different?
Is it ethical for this couple to have a baby when the mother could
begin showings signs of HD when the baby is just a few years old?
With this technology possible, would it be ethical for this couple
to have a child without genetically ensuring it would not have the
disease? What if we did not have this technology, would it be ethical
for a known carrier to have a child? (If not, how far should this
carry? a carrier for cystic fibrosis ( which is recessive)? )
Weighing everything we have discussed, do you believe the couple
Universal Health Care:
The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not offer
some form of universal health care, and each year the number of uninsured
Americans is increasing. Many people look to Canada's health care system
as a possible means of fixing our current woes. However, some of the fears
associated with universal health care are:
Drug/medical technology companies fear that they will not make a
There will be a large tax increase.
Quality of care will decrease.
The following cases and their corresponding questions address some of
the problems and fears.
A mother brings her son into the emergency room during an asthma attack.
Though both of his parents work, they cannot afford medical insurance
for themselves or him. They also earn too much money to qualify for state
or federal aid. He is treated for his asthma attack at the hospital and
he and his mother leave. Two weeks later, they return to the hospital
in a virtually identical scenario.
Questions for Case 1:
Do you think that this boy is receiving adequate care?
he be able to see a primary care physician before his condition gets
so acute that he must visit the ER?
Should everyone be entitled to a basic "minimum of health care"
or to the exact same health care?
Do you think that health care is a right? If so, are we forced to
honor this right?
(If students answer "yes" to the above question) Is this
right relative or universal? Does this right exist because of the
wealth of the United States, or is it applicable everywhere? Is health
care a luxury?
Does having money entitle a person to better health care? (they may
have worked harder for their greater wealth)
An upper middle class, middle aged, Canadian man is playing racket ball
when he suddenly feels a pop in his knee. In pain, he makes an appointment
with his general practitioner and is seen the next day. He is given pain
medication, and is referred to an orthopedic surgeon (he has no choice
of who he will see). After a week wait, he is seen by the orthopedic surgeon
and is told he will need surgery. Two weeks later surgery is performed
on the man's knee. The physician, who is not very good, does a poor job
on the knee, and the man walks with a slight limp for the rest of his
life. The surgery costs the man no money directly, however, he pays for
it with higher taxes.
Questions For Case 2:
What do you think of this man's experience in comparison to case
1? Which situation seems worse, and why?
Does it seem like it took too long for him to receive care? (The
physicians will perform surgery on the more urgent patients first
and then on the less serious.)
What do you think about not being able to choose your own physician?
(Note: In the United States, many insurance companies limit which
physicians you choose.)
One suggested solution for our current health care woes is that care
for the elderly be decreased/eliminated. For example, people over
the age of 80 will no longer be placed on life support, which costs
approximately $10,000 per day to operate. What do you think of this?
What do you think could be a good middle ground solution to this
Response To Bio-Terrorism
The possibility of terrorists using biological weapons on the citizens
of the United States has been a major topic in the press for the last
several years. Smallpox has been speculated to be the perfect biological
terror agent because of the potency of the virus, and because of the lack
of herd immunity present in the US population. The following case presents
a possible way in which the virus could be released in the population
and a possible response. The questions following the case involve the
ethics surrounding the government's response.
Smallpox initially has flu-like symptoms, which are recognizable
7-19 days after exposure. After 2-4 days of flu-like symptoms, the
fever begins to decrease, and pox will form.
An infected person is contagious one day before the characteristic
Approximately 30-50% of unvaccinated people exposed to smallpox will
contract the disease.
The mortality rate for smallpox was approximately 20-40%.
The vaccine that was used was approximately 90% effective.
It is possible that if terrorists were to use the smallpox virus,
that they would genetically modify it. If this were the case, then
the vaccine may not prevent all of the disease symptoms for those
Facts gathered from: http://www.vbs.admin.ch/ls/e/current/fact_sheet/pocken/
Date: June 22, 2005. A 27-year-old man is brought into a New York City
emergency room with a 101-degree fever, and what he believes is chickenpox
(Varicella). After a brief examination, the 35-year-old physician is puzzled
because the pox do not appear to be typical of the varicella-zoster virus.
Worried, he calls in another physician for her opinion. She takes one
look at the patient, determines he has small pox, and immediately orders
him to be quarantined. She notifies the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC) and asks them what should be done.
While doing background on the patient, he tells the physicians that he
is a flight attendant and that he has flown to Orlando, FL, Los Angeles,
CA, Chicago, IL, and Seattle, WA in the past few weeks while working.
Though he is given excellent treatment, and had been in perfect health
a few days earlier, the patient dies 7 hours after admittance to the hospital.
The CDC decides that mandatory small pox vaccines will be administered
to all workers in the NYC hospital, and to all patients who were in the
ER. His co-workers are all given mandatory vaccines as well, as are all
people living in his apartment complex. They also ship stored quantities
of the vaccine to all of the cities where the man had flown to for work.
The vaccines are offered to citizens of these cities. Finally, all people,
along with their families who had been on the man's flights in the weeks
preceding the appearance of the disease are forced to receive the vaccine.
Note: The flight attendant was most likely given small pox by a bio terrorist
who flew on his plane sometime during the past week/week and a half. The
terrorist would have been contagious but would not have shown symptoms.
Virtually every person the man came into contact with would have gotten
Is it ethical for the CDC to force people to get the vaccine?
An LA woman on the flight is religiously opposed to vaccines. Under
California law she can normally refuse vaccines on religious or personal
grounds. However, the government says she must receive the vaccine
or face mandatory quarantine. What do you think of this?
Do you think that for more common diseases, for example measles,
that it is ethical for the state to allow people to refuse vaccines
(even for religious grounds)? What if their refusal can harm others
who cannot have the vaccine, such as people who are immunocompromised
like AIDS patients?
Is it ethical for someone to refuse the vaccine?
You had driven down to Los Angeles 5 days ago to visit a friend for
the weekend. While in town, you visited many tourist attractions.
You are worried and you try to get the vaccine, but are denied it
because of limited resources. What do you think of this?
Citizens begin calling for the mandatory quarantining of people directly
exposed to the victim, i.e those living in his apartment complex,
those working in the ER, those who flew on the plane in the prior
week. What do you think of this?
The smallpox vaccine, like many other vaccines (example: oral polio
vaccine) can actually transmit the virus to others. In light of this,
is it ethical for people to get the vaccine? (Note: they are vaccinating
those who may not want to be vaccinated)
Today, should health care workers be allowed/forced to get the smallpox
vaccine? What about non-health care worker citizens?