Serving on an Ethics Panel

The health-care industry and various research communities (among others) make heavy use of “ethics panels” these days. Such panels are usually mandated to take a broad view of how specific actions will impact welfare: to what extent is it permissible to mislead someone in the course of a research experiment? would the knowledge gained from a particular experiment justify killing a dozen mice? when are patients competent to make decisions about refusing treatment?

It seems clear to me that like judges, a member of an ethics panel should be obliged to recuse themself from any decisions which impacts them personally. You can’t serve on a panel that decides whether or not someone else is allowed to donate a kidney to save a member of your family’s life, for example.

Now put that on hold for a moment and consider this story, which delightfully combines two villains of late: Arizona and the Catholic Church. Doctors agreed that because of a rare medical condition, a woman’s 11-week pregnancy threatened to kill her. They felt it was necessary to terminate the pregnancy. The decision was referred to an ethics panel which included, among others, a Catholic nun:

Sister Margaret McBride, who had been vice president of mission integration at the hospital, was on call as a member of the hospital’s ethics committee when the surgery took place, hospital officials said. She was part of a group of people, including the patient and doctors, who decided upon the course of action.

The panel agreed on the abortion.

Result? The nun was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. This was officially confirmed by the local bishop, but the excommunication was automatic the moment she let the panel make its decision.

I don’t know much about Catholicism, but I seem to recall that being excommunicated has pretty serious repercussions on your long-term welfare.

If making decisions as part of an ethics panel has a direct effect on your own welfare, then clearly you should recuse yourself from that panel; you can’t be expected to make objective judgements about the welfare of others because your own welfare is at stake. True believers in any of a great number of religions should thus never be allowed to serve on such panels.

I suppose the same logic applies to judges, as well. If a judge’s own religious welfare is tied to the decisions they make, then either the court is explicitly a religious one (i.e. religious beliefs trump all other concerns), or they are always at risk of a conflict of interest (i.e. some other concern could trump religious beliefs, forcing the judge to choose between their own welfare and their duty to the court). Thank goodness Elena Kagan is Jewish…