Welcome to Medicine and Morals, in which we will have the opportunity to explore contemporary medical dilemmas from the perspective of Jewish ethics. The paternalistic medicine of yesteryear is gone, and a foundation of modern medicine is patient autonomy, the right to choose one's treatment or no treatment at all. But what happens when a patient makes bad choices? Does a patient have the right to ignore medical advice? And are we ethically bound to allow the patient to make unwise decisions?
One of the most beloved of American poets, Robert Frost, describes the capricious nature of choice:
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
The took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leave no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Judaism has a somewhat different view of how to make decisions while standing at the crossroads:
“I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
If to be human is to have choice, to be moral is to make the right choice. And Judaism provides us with guidelines about how to choose wisely.
Lesson One of Medicine and Morals is entitled, “Choosing Life,” and examines a case study in which a young girl decides that she would rather die than undergo the transplant that doctors say is needed to save her life. Is the decision hers to make? Is she free to choose death? Can we—must we—intervene on her behalf?
Looking forward to discussing this and more this week when we meet at the Chabad Torah Centre.