An invitation to the following dropped into my inbox:

Morals and medicine: a changing landscape

To launch its new edition of Medical Ethics Todaythe BMA is holding an innovative conference to explore challenging contemporary dilemmas in medical ethics.

When and where

Wednesday 22 February 2012
BMA House, Tavistock Square, London.

Included in your registration fee!

Key sessions

Facilitated by Michael Buerk of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, the morning session will look at withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration from patients in a minimally conscious state.Using a dramatised scenario based on real-life cases and supplemented by expert interventions by ethicists, lawyers, health economists and healthcare professionals, it will ask questions including:

  • Should a patient be maintained in a minimally conscious state if she had previously told her relatives it would be hateful to her?
  • What are the financial implications of keeping people alive indefinitely in a minimally conscious state?
  • What sort of interests does a patient in a minimally conscious state have?

The afternoon session will look at challenges to medical professionalism arising from changes both to healthcare delivery and to the way a new generation of doctors and patients choose to work and to live. It will explore questions such as:

  • Is a consumerist approach to health undermining the core values of medicine?
  • Will commercialising healthcare lead to dangerous conflicts of interest?
  • Younger doctors are seeking a different work-life balance – how will professionalism change?

You should attend, if you are:

A doctor, teacher or student with an interest in medical ethics will find this a thought-provoking and challenging conference.

Why should you attend?

Hear from leading experts in the fields of the law, medicine, ethics and health economics as they consider the complex and emotive issues around the issue of withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration from a patient in a minimally conscious state. You may also:

  • contribute to a debate facilitated by Michael Buerk
  • consider presentations on the contemporary challenges to medical professionalism
  • network with colleagues from across the UK
  • take home your complimentary copy of Medical Ethics Today


Confirmed speakers include:Mr Alastair Pitblado, Official Solicitor to the Senior Courts
Dr Iona Heath, President, Royal College of General Practitioners
Professor David Haslam, President, British Medical Association

I confess that when I was at medical school I’d have seen nothing wrong with this lineup of speakers. Like most people who are (or considered themselves) non-disabled, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that in a discussion about ethical treatment of a disabled person, having a disabled speaker on the panel might add something to the discussion.

Rather like a woman on a panel discussing ethical issues that impact women, or someone from an ethnic minority discussing medical care that applies specifically to ethnic minorities, disabled people have a valid perspective on ethical issues that have a real and measurable effect on their lives. I have to admit that I’m not sure whether the BMA’s lineup is overt ableism or not; they have to be aware that a disabled person might have a perspective that would make the other speakers uncomfortable in their assertions. I have little doubt that the case under discussion will be othered to the fullest extent, and society’s attitudes to dependency on full display.

Artificially prolonging life is not always the correct answer, however the ethics of decision-making cannot be valid until all perspectives are taken into account.

My email to the conference organisers:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I received the email about the Morals and Medicine conference today.

I was concerned to note that although the conference is about withdrawing supportive treatment from a severely disabled woman, there is no speaker listed who is representing the rights and perspectives of the disabled in the debate.

There are many disabled people who live lives of extreme dependency, who have serious communication difficulties, who endure pain and discomfort, and yet do not feel their existence is pointless. The failure to listen to disabled people’s perspectives is an ongoing issue for the disabled community. The way our culture fosters fear of dependency, of disability, is tied into these issues; most, if not all, doctors will be aware of situations where care is withdrawn or not offered because of a judgement that an individuals life is ‘not worth living’. You present an extreme case for discussion, but unfortunately these judgements spill over into the attitudes towards people of all varieties of disability.

It is too easy for the able-bodied to fail to recognise the privilege they have in this debate; I ask that you make a serious effort to ensure that all views are properly represented.