Bioethics Blogs

Dominic Wilkinson, Death or Disability: The Carmentis Machine and Decision-Making for Critically Ill Children, Oxford University Press, 2013

Dominic Wilkinson, a neonatal physician and medical ethicist, has written a searching, moving, and philosophically sophisticated book about the ethics of life and death decision making in the neonatal intensive care unit. Although I will devote much of this review to criticism, I want to say at the outset that Death or Disability represents interdisciplinary work at its very best. Wilkinson’s exposition is both rich in detail and uncompromising in its ethical analysis. He spares the reader none of the clinical, psychological, and moral complexities and uncertainties of the decisions made daily in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

I especially recommend this book to moral philosophers and practical ethicists worried that their debates on issues like time-relative interests and non-identity are ingrown and academic. Wilkinson explains the relevance of these and other seemingly arcane issues to the real, wrenching decisions that parents, physicians, and the larger society must make about the treatment of newborns at risk of very severe impairment.

After briefly outlining the structure of the book and some of its complex arguments, I will focus on three of the few areas where Wilkinson’s thorough, painstaking analysis strikes me as incomplete: the role of impersonal considerations in decisions about continuing or ending the lives of impaired neonates; the implications of the time-relative interest account Wilkinson adopts for balancing potentially conflicting interests in the neonate’s survival; and the role of physicians in helping to make neonatal treatment decisions under the threshold framework Wilkinson proposes.

The book begins with two prologues about imagined visits to learn the fate of a sickly neonate: one to the Roman Temple of Carmentis in 30 AD, the other to The Carmentis Machine in 2030.

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.