Health Care Ethics

Course Syllabus (PDF)

Every human mind and body breaks down over time. As fundamentally social creatures, we care for one another in periods of weakness, illness, and injury. Over time, that basic mutual care has institutionalized into a constellation of professions and industries: nurses, doctors, techs, and physician’s assistants who work in clinics and hospitals, navigating a complex network of government and private insurance. Still, the basic questions of how to best care for one another remain. What obligations do we have to care for one another? For family members? For strangers? How much should we intervene and intrude upon one another’s bodies and how much should we let illness and injury play its course? When it becomes impossible to care for everyone in the same way, how do we make the choices about who receives different kinds of care? Because these questions cut the deepest when they appear in bodies (rather than in classrooms), the course will rely upon the experiences of a number of health care professionals.

This course explores the ethics of health care in its contemporary institutional forms, focused on health care in the United States. The class is grounded in a Roman Catholic perspective, drawing on the long tradition of Catholic health care. Nevertheless, the course will not assume that students are Catholic nor that they will come to agree with stated Catholic positions on the issues discussed. The overall goal of the course is to foster critical reflection on how best to be responsible in actions and decisions. Catholic teaching will offer the starting point and sounding board for our critical reflection. The course considers the ethics of health care broadly. We will certainly reflect on the morality of particular clinical procedures, but we will also think about the ethics of health care policy, the importance of professionalism in provider-patient relations and in collegial relations among providers. We will talk about the tension between legal and moral responsibilities, and the role of conscience. We will talk about the impact of cultural and historical legacies—anti-black racism in the United States, for example—as it effects the scope and quality of care that people receive, despite the explicit intentions of the providers.

By the end of the course, students will: (1) be capable of articulating basic moral principles of Catholic health care ethics and their theological rationale; (2) have researched and articulated, in speech and writing, positions on difficult ethical questions encountered in health care and therefore, be equipped to critically reflect on ethical questions in health care practice, whenever they may arise; (3) considered carefully the tensions between simultaneous responsibilities (to God, to one’s conscience, to the law, to the profession, to society as a whole) as they emerge in the practice of health care.