Teaching Children Death Panel Ethics

Social Usefulness or the Imago Dei?

Rating: 1.00

Just what are they teaching children in school these days? Well, when it comes to human dignity and medical ethics, we’d better pay attention. Stay tuned to BreakPoint.

Listen Now | Download

John Stonestreet

It was the kind of assignment that makes you nostalgic for paper-mache volcanoes and baking soda. Freshmen and sophomores in a social studies class at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in Illinois were asked to make life-and-death decisions concerning people they’d never met.

While the exercise was theoretical, the thinking involved in the exercise has real-world consequences.

The lesson began by telling students that ten people shared a serious problem: Without access to a dialysis machine, they would all die.

Unfortunately, they were told, the local hospital only has enough machines for six of them. The assignment was to decide who got the treatment and who didn’t. The students were asked to rankDaily_Commentary_10_25_13 the potential recipients from one, the person they most wanted to receive treatment, to ten, the person they least wanted.

All they knew about the people was age, race, and occupation or lack thereof: a housewife, doctor, lawyer, disabled person, cop, teacher, minister, college student, ex-convict, and prostitute.

When a mother of one of the students learned about the assignment, she thought about how her own family, which included an autistic child and an elderly bed-ridden mother, would fare in the exercise. So she contacted the school and complained about the assignment.

As she told the website Champion News, “I am a special needs advocate and deal with the denial of services on a daily basis in my own home. I live this.” Her objection was that the students were too young and their minds weren’t developed enough to handle this kind of assignment.

The school insists that the assignment was about “social bias,” a claim that is belied by the fact that the following lesson was about abortion and when in pregnancy it was permissible.

When news about the assignment spread, people invoked the “death panels” that figure in the debate over health care reform. While understandable, making that connection misses a far larger and more pernicious point.

The assignment was a lesson in utilitarian ethics, the kind made famous—or infamous—by  Princeton professor Peter Singer. The students were being taught to value a person’s worth and dignity on the basis of what kind of contribution they could make to society.

And it’s a lesson they took to heart: The students’ choices reflected the person’s social prestige and/or age. The top three were the doctor, lawyer and teacher. The bottom three were the college student, ex-convict, and the disabled person.

The objecting parent was right—impressionable fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds lacked any alternative to ranking people on the basis of their contribution to the maximization of overall happiness. It’s a criterion that by definition is stacked against the disabled, the elderly and the marginalized.

The utilitarian emphasis on “maximizing total human happiness” is, as Dr. Dianne Irving, a pioneer in the field, has written, at the heart of modern bioethics. This assumption, more than any law, is what Christians must oppose with all their might.

Our children must grow up believing in what Wesley J. Smith calls “human exceptionalism,” the “sheer moral importance of believing in the unique value of human beings.” This idea, which is rooted in the Christian idea that every human being is created in the image of God, is all that standNewsletter_Gen_180x180_Bs between us and the real-world application of the lessons learned by those students in Illinois. After all, these students will be the ones making real decisions about the elderly and the unborn in just a few years.

That’s why I’d love for you to check out the newest edition of Chuck Colson’s “Doing the Right Thing” video series on ethics, designed especially for high school students, even those in public schools. Come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary to learn more.

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_102513Teaching Children Death Panel Ethics: Social Usefulness or the Imago Dei? - Next Steps

Teach your children well--help them recognize that all human beings have value because they are created by God.

The resources listed below are a great way to educate your children and others in your spheres of influence on the critical issue of human dignity.

Download a copy of the "Doing the Right Thing" series at the Colson Center online bookstore, and purchase a copy of "How Now Shall We Live?," Chuck Colson's groundbreaking book on ethics and worldview.

Doing the Right Thing, participant guide and DVD
Colson Center

Doing the Right Thing: Public School edition
BreakPoint | Zondervan | October 2013

How Now Shall We Live?
Charles W. Colson | Tyndale | August 1999

The School Improvement Check List
Gateways to Better Education website


How many patients?

I would commend your teachers for encouraging you to question the questioners. But now that you have done that, I will attempt to answer. The hospital that can only handle 6 patients is really a metaphor for the whole world, which is presumed to only be able to handle blank billions of people adequately (fill in the blank). So when you ask how much it would cost to take care of the excess patients by shipping them to another hospital, you are really asking about sending the excess population to another planet or moon.

It cost us 24 billion dollars to send three men at a time to the moon for a few days, about a half dozen times, and that was in 1960s dollars, which are now worth about 15 cents each. So in current value dollars, we are talking about roughly 10 billion dollars per person. And that is not even counting the cost of setting up a hospital on the moon, and setting up a fully functional colony with complete life support facilities for all the staff, patients, etc., not to mention medicines, medical equipment, etc.

I hope that answers your question.
Answering a question with a question
I was blessed with high school teachers and college professors who pushed me and my fellow students when it came to the questions that they asked us. Basically, they taught me to look at serious questions very critically and to not just dutifully and uncritically attempt to answer them. They taught me to question the questioner. In this case, some of the questions to be asked in response are: what does the questioner mean by "the hospital can only handle six patients"? Why can't the hospital extend its hours to handle more patients, and why can't the hospital get more machines? How can the community help the hospital to expand its capacity and expand it quickly? If the hospital can truly not expand its capacity, where is the next closest hospital? How can we organize volunteers to get patients to that hospital? My teachers and professors taught me to never take things at apparent face value, to not be afraid to challenge them (respectfully, of course), and to always carefully consider what I was being asked to do and not to simply do it because an authority figure was asking me to. I was indeed blessed by them.
More on lifeboats
I never heard (or heard of) the song Lifeboat (I pretty much stopped paying much attention to secular pop music in 1979 when I was born again), but as I listened to the commentary, it immediately brought to my mind the early situation ethics teaching I heard about from Christian teachers on the radio, which described essentially the same scenario, but in a lifeboat.
This reminds me of the old Steve Taylor song lifeboat. I think it was an 80s song. It's scary how quickly what was thought of his extreme is now becoming the norm. Thanks for this article