October 26, 2009


Death panel dudgeon: A very public disagreement between two prominent American bioethicists shows that they have only themselves to blame for attacks on their profession. (Michael Cook, 10/26/09, MercatorNet)

[T]he most recent attack on [President Obama's chief health care adviser, Ezechiel] Emanuel, who is also the head of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health and the brother of President Obama's chief of staff, came not from the right-wingers, the tabloid press or the internet wackos, but from a leading bioethicist colleague.

This was sparked by an address by Dr Emanuel to the annual conference of the ASBH. He argued that what bioethics needed was more statistics. Without a solid grounding in quantitative methods, bioethicists simply aren't much good. Ideally, aspiring bioethicists should study behavioral economics, psychology, decision theory or sociology. There should be less public discussion and more number-crunching. And, he implied, it is number-crunching bioethicists who will be getting the precious government funding which enables them to stay in business.

America's best-known bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, was so irritated that he almost immediately posted an open reply. He responded that a bioethicist must be a "moral diagnostician". "A crucial part of the bioethicist's role is to alert, engage and help to illuminate ethical problems and challenges both old and new in the health and life sciences." Empirical data are just one tool in the bioethical toolbox.

Emanuel's address has not been published on the internet yet. But this very public dust-up provides more ammunition for those who believe that the field of bioethics is in crisis. When the most quoted US bioethicist says that the philosophy of the most powerful US bioethicist is "narrow, misguided and wrong", what are laymen to think? It certainly gives them no confidence whatsoever that President Obama is getting the right bioethical advice.

The problem is deeply rooted in American bioethics, at least the kind represented by Dr Emanuel, and to some extent, Dr Caplan himself. Americans have every right to think that bioethics is about clarifying and defending human dignity. But to their surprise, when these mysterious seers emerge from their academic caves, all they hear is talk about statistics, efficiency and quality-adjusted life years.

...to justify killing patients. It has nothing to do with ethics or bio.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 26, 2009 8:25 AM
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