Does bioethics understand the family?

September 30, 2014

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogTraditional bioethics does not pay sufficient attention to the role that family relationships can play, for example, in decisions about organ donation. New opportunities in healthcare create moral problems that bioethics therefore cannot identify and manage. To identify and understand these moral problems requires a specific ethics of families, writes among others Ulrik Kihlbom in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

The authors are members of the “Network on ethics of families.” In the article, they use a striking example of a moral problem that becomes invisible in standard bioethics. I believe the example is authentic.

Annie’s brother Stewart has kidney problems. Annie would like to donate one of her kidneys to her brother, but cannot because she does not have matching blood or tissue type. Thanks to a new healthcare initiative, she can however join a donor pool. If the computer can identify a suitable person in the pool who can receive her kidney and another suitable person who can donate a kidney to her brother, the result is the same: Annie donates, Stewart receives.

But Annie does not perceive it as the same thing. She cannot explain why she suddenly becomes hesitant to donate her kidney, when the healthcare team treats indirect donation to the brother via the pool as completely analogous to direct donation to her brother.

Annie does not reason according to the professional logic that the healthcare team and many bioethicists use. She is willing to donate a kidney to her brother. To donate to a stranger to thereby enable her brother to get a kidney is not the same thing.

Understanding Annie’s problems with the healthcare team’s proposal requires a different form of ethical thinking, a family ethics.

Another aspect of Annie’s willingness to donate a kidney to her brother that is made ​​invisible by traditional bioethics is its unconditional character. Donating an organ to a needing member of the family can strike families as a given responsibility. They can feel they have no choice. This is difficult to understand from a traditional bioethical perspective that emphasizes individuals’ autonomous and rational choices between alternatives.

I would like to add that the professionally well-motivated donor pool possibly even plays on the family ethics that one does not understand. Are not new donors recruited by appealing to the unconditional willingness to donate within the family?

The article moreover contains a discussion about problems of justice, requiring a perspective from family ethics to be seen. Read it!

Pär Segerdahl

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