The right to die has played a critical role in the development of the doctor/patient relationship. It was families clamoring for the right to allow their loved ones to die who forced the world to recognize that physicians’ medical decisions aren’t just medical decisions, but involve enormous value judgments. In 1975, Karen Ann Quinlan’s loving parents asked her doctors to remove her ventilator, Quinlan having suffered irreversible brain damage that put her in a persistent vegetative state. Her doctors refused, saying such an action was medically inappropriate. The New Jersey Supreme Court, and the majority of the lay public, concluded that the doctors were exceeding their authority, in making moral judgments about whether Quinlan should live or die.
When I tell people Quinlan’s story (for example, in my book Critical Decisions), I present it as an example of the distinction between medical facts and value judgments. Physicians typically hold expertise about medical facts – about whether people like Quinlan in persistent vegetative state can experience pain or joy; about whether or not her ventilator was prolonging her life. But decisions about whether to keep Quinlan on the ventilator are value judgments, and physicians have no special expertise, or power, to make these decisions.
As it turns out, I’m partly wrong about the distinction between medical facts and value judgments. Recent research on, among other things, people’s attitudes towards robots has shown that sometimes medical judgments – whether, say, a person with persistent vegetative state can experience pain – are influenced by our moral thinking.
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.