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View Program and Text Highlights

The video highlight shows our panelists in action. The Discussion Guide frames their debates in contemporary terms, while the Ethics Reader grounds the discussion in the philosophy of the past.


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Baby Hope, born dying

In this video highlight, a picture-perfect pregnancy ends tragically when the baby's umbilical cord becomes compressed during birth, cutting off oxygen and depriving the unborn baby of nutrients. At the hospital, everything that could be done was done; but now Baby Hope is on a respirator, her brain waves are very weak, and she shows no response to anything. The panelists assume hypothetical roles. As Hope's mother and father, Melinda Delahoyde and Art Caplan fight to keep the baby alive on the ventilator, despite her lack of responsiveness. Others, such as Dr. Marcia Angell, argue that since Hope has no higher brain function, she has no best interests. How should the parents decide what is best for Baby Hope now?


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Framing This Discussion (from the Discussion Guide)

It used to be thought that a baby lacking basic human attributes like speech, laughter, curiosity, and love was not really human. About 25 years ago, the philosophers who specialized in medical ethics, or bioethics as it is called, moved away from that line of thinking. Of course the impaired baby, described above, is human. She has not transformed into some animal, nor, despite the popularity of the phrase "vegetative state," into some vegetable. The question is not, What is she? let alone, Is she worth saving? But rather, What sort of medical interventions are appropriate for her, given her medical condition?

The answer implied by current medical practice is to offer interventions that promise benefit for the baby proportionate to the burden of the treatment, interventions limited to support for breathing on a ventilator, feeding tubes, kidney dialysis, surgery, and the like. This is straightforward and wise, but as the discussion in the clip demonstrates, often difficult to apply.

For a deeper examination of the analysis abridged here, see the Discussion Guide.

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Philosophical Grounding of This Discussion (from the Ethics Reader)

Would the Greeks intervene in the case of Baby Hope? The Hippocratic Oath has set the standard for medical ethics since the fifth century B.C., binding all physicians who made the pledge. The following passage is an excerpt from the Oath.

I will apply dietetic measure for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and in holiness I will guard my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.

To read selections from philosophical texts relevant to this program, see Ethics Reader.

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