Observations Ethics Man

“What does the law say?”

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a617 (Published 30 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a617
  1. Daniel K Sokol, lecturer in medical ethics and law
  1. 1St George’s, University of London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}talk21.com

    Although consideration of the law has a place in ethics, moral problems should not be reduced to legal questions

    As a PhD student I worked every Friday night as a “table hopping” magician in a restaurant. By far the most common—and least amusing—question I was asked was, “Can you make my wife disappear?” “That’ll cost you extra,” I would reply with a strained smile, hinting at a hopefully generous tip. As a teacher of medical ethics the equivalent question I get from students and clinicians is, “What does the law say?” My answer seldom varies: “Let’s work out the ethics first, then we can look at the law.”

    In the minds of many medical students and doctors, the law holds not only an intimidating, menacing authority but also a certain magical quality. Legal knowledge can make the complexities of a moral dilemma vanish. Can it be lawful to override the wishes of a 15 year old Jehovah’s Witness who refuses a blood transfusion to treat her leukaemia? Yes, consider the case Re E [1993] 1 FLR 386. Whoosh, problem gone. The danger here is legalism …

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