The following piece was written exclusively for Public Discourse.
by Deirdre Cooper and Beverly Nuckols, M.D.
When assessing the case of Christopher Dunn, in which some key details remain hazy, we ought to give his physicians and hospital ethics committee the benefit of the doubt.
In a recent Public Discourse essay, Philip Hawley, Jr., recounts the tragic death of Texan Chris Dunn. Hawley admirably defends a bioethics grounded on the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of all persons.
Unfortunately, his account of the case was based upon incomplete and sometimes factually incorrect reporting by other news outlets. An examination of court records presents a different picture of some key details of Dunn’s medical condition and the decision-making process undertaken by his family members and physicians.
On an ethical level, Hawley’s assertion that Dunn was subject to “death by committee” supposes an improper standard: namely, he assumes that the hospital and attending physician are guilty of murderous intentions until proven innocent. On the contrary, a review of the facts indicates it was possible and even plausible they did not intend to cause Dunn’s death. Moreover, Hawley fails to account for important implications of the conscience rights of doctors, who should not be bound to continue medical treatments that they believe to be causing more harm than good.
A More Complicated Picture
This is not simply a case of a hospital or a doctor versus the patient and his family. Rather, this is a case of an incapacitated patient who was terminally ill, whose parents disagreed about the best course of treatment, and whose doctors believed that life-sustaining treatment was causing suffering, as is plainly evident from court documents.