Tuesday, March 21, 2006

21st Annual Clarke Family Medical Ethics Conference

During a quiet spring break week, the time-honored favorite of physicians and scholars, the 21st Annual Philip and Doris Clarke Family Medical Ethics Conference, was held March 17th through 20th at Notre Dame. Philosophers, theologians and legal scholars mixed with Notre Dame students, alumni physicians and health-care workers to explore a variety of issues ranging from the familiar case of Terri Schiavo to recent scandals in medical research and ripped-from-the-headline stories of the challenges facing medical care in emergency and disaster conditions.

The conference, as always, primarily consisted of several small-group discussions of case studies provided by members of the conference audience and reflecting current issues in medical practice. To start off the weekend, on Friday afternoon, Center director David Solomon chaired a session entitled, “Doctor’s Duties in Disasters,” which featured the failures in medical care observed during Hurricane Katrina and the challenges posed by a possible avian flu pandemic. The results of the small-group discussions were then highlighted in a plenary discussion with a panel consisting of Dr. Mark Siegler, professor at the University of Chicago and Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics, Gilbert Meilaender, the Phyllis & Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, Alyssa Brauweiler, and Christina Holmstrom, both Notre Dame undergraduate students. During the plenary discussion, participants noted the importance of hope and resourcefulness and the necessity of heroism in disaster cases. Differences in worldviews and in concepts of virtue, limited financial resources, and even the finitude of human life were all highlighted as challenges to ethical care-giving in disaster situations.

The conference continued on late Friday afternoon with the annual J. Philip Clarke Family Lecture on Medical Ethics, delivered by John Robinson, J.D., Ph.D., associate dean and associate professor of law at the Notre Dame Law School. Robinson’s lecture was entitled, “The Three Deaths of Terri Schiavo: Cultural, Medical and Legal.” In his lecture, Professor Robinson first recounted the facts and legal history of the Terri Schiavo case. He then brought this background into focus by emphasizing the near-impossible task assigned to judges in end-of-life cases. Judges, he claimed, must mix the subjective preferences of the patient or the patient’s family with objective legal or statutory standards to determine the appropriate legal outcome in each particular case. He noted, however, that judges are particularly suited to this task and he expressed confidence in judges’ ability to do it well. As he stated, “all normative institutions [including the judiciary] need time to adjust to the radical novelty of contemporary end-of-life medical care.” The Clarke Lecture was followed by a reception and dinner in McKenna Hall.

After the day’s hard work, many attendees attended a beautiful mass in Alumni Chapel concelebrated by Rev. James Bresnahan and Rev. John Young, followed by dinner in the private dining rooms of the Morris Inn. The closing banquet contained a touching tribute to Judy Gibson and Kathleen Sullivan, who are no longer coordinating the conference for the Alumni Association. Judy and Kathy have organized this conference for many years and their presence, guidance and wisdom will be greatly missed. The conference concluded with a final session on Sunday morning, where the participants discussed a variety of topics in a roundtable format, with panelists Margaret Hogan, Tris Englehardt, John Robinson, Jorge Garcia, Kevin McDonnell and David Solomon. Other ethics consultants in attendance at the conference and not already mentioned were Corinna Delkeskamp-Hayes, Mark Jensen (the Center graduate assistant who selected and put together the packet of readings), and Center associate director Daniel McInerny.

As always, we are grateful to the Notre Dame Alumni Association, and in particular to our new partners, Mirella Riley, newly-appointed director of the Academic Division, and administrative assistant Janet Miller, for their tremendous help in coordinating this year’s conference.

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