Bioethics Blogs

On Testimonial and Argument in Bioethics

We all know, as Steve Phillips reminded us yesterday, that Brittany Maynard took the pills this past Sunday, one day later than she had originally planned.  In the days before that, she appealed to our compassion for her in her suffering—and powerfully at that.  Equally powerful were stories from the likes of Kara Tippetts and, as Steve pointed out, Maggie Karner, two women with terminal brain tumors, one metastatic, the other, like Ms. Maynard’s, primary. 

The medical details matter less than the shared aspects of these women’s experiences, for, indeed, we take it as axiomatic that such shared experience more than deepens the two responses—it is, we tend to think, a necessary prerequisite.  Who can speak to someone without standing in his or her shoes, as the saying goes?  Why should someone in present good health presume to be able to speak into the experience of another who is suffering?  How can anyone not facing death dare to speak to a terminally ill person, much less lecture her, about physician-assisted suicide?  To even address the topic on the grounds of principled argument sounds insensitive, like screaming at another from the depths of an unloving heart.

As a case in point, look back, for example, at Ezekiel Emanuel’s 2012 New York Times blog post, “Four Myths about Doctor-Assisted Suicide.”  Look especially at the comments that were posted.  (Note that the comments section has long since been closed.)  Many of them take the tone of, “Dr. Emanuel, how can you be so cruel?”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.