Bioethics Blogs

What Mad Men’s Betty Draper-Francis Can Teach Us About Paternalism in Medicine

January Jones as Betty Draper-Francis on AMC’s Mad Men.

By: Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

The penultimate episode of AMC’s Mad Men provided an all-too-familiar portrayal of the paternalistic nature of medicine via the handling of Betty Draper-Francis’s diagnosis of lung cancer. While the episode takes place in 1970 and there has since been a gradual shift to a more patient-centered approach in medicine, it offers a glimpse into power imbalances in medical care that still can occur today.

When Betty’s new classmates bring her to the emergency room, the first words out of the doctor’s mouth are “Mrs. Francis, is it possible to get your husband down here?” Betty assumes it is for the purpose of driving her home, but the doctor assures her that it is, in fact, for the purpose of explaining her condition to her husband, Henry, either prior to or at the same time he discloses the diagnosis to Betty.

When the doctor indicates that it is more serious than a broken rib, and Betty questions the extent of her condition, the doctor simply states that there is a telephone in the waiting room. In other words, he removes any ownership Betty has over knowledge of her own health and body, and insists on disclosing this information through her husband – man to man.

The next time we see Betty and Henry, they are in a different doctor’s office; Betty, perfectly coiffed but uncomfortably perched on an examining table, while Henry and the doctor discuss her condition in the background as if she was not in the room.

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.