A Tale of Two Disciplines: Law and Bioethics
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A Tale of Two Disciplines
Law and Bioethics

Fascination with In re Quinlan, the first high-profile right-to-die case in the United States, led the author to law school. By the time she received her law degree, bioethics was emerging as a field of study, and law and bioethics became her field. The mission of legal education is to teach students to "think like a lawyer," which can be a productive way to approach issues in many fields, including bioethics. Legal education can also teach individuals to respect people whose views on bioethics issues differ from their own. This essay describes three areas in which legal training influenced the author's work in bioethics: treatment decisions, research misconduct, and stem cell research.

Karen Quinlan played a big part in my decision to become a lawyer. When this nation's first high-profile right-to-die case was litigated in the 1970s, I was a college graduate who wasn't sure what to do next. I had majored in psychology and sociology and had thought about graduate study in one of those fields. But In re Quinlan (355 A.2d 647 (N.J.1976)) pointed me in a different direction.

Karen Quinlan was a young woman who had temporarily stopped breathing after taking tranquilizers and drinking alcohol at a party. Oxygen deprivation left her in a persistent vegetative state, and doctors believed she needed a respirator [End Page 47] and other intensive care measures to survive. Over time, her family came to see these measures as invasive and futile. But when they asked for the respirator to be removed, the doctors, hospital, and New Jersey prosecutor opposed the request.

Constantly in the headlines as it moved through the New Jersey trial and appellate courts, Quinlan was impossible to ignore. I was just one of thousands following the story. Quinlan and her family became familiar figures, and people across the country knew about the circumstances that had put her in the intensive care unit. The case was a vivid public announcement of the unprecedented control modern medicine could exercise over life and death.

The case drew my attention for another reason. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but personal experience laid the groundwork for my fascination. My father died of cancer when he was 39. I was 12 at the time; my brothers were even younger. Heeding the conventional wisdom of that era, my mother tried to shield us from the fact that he was dying. We knew something awful was happening, though, and eventually, it did. Yet even after his death, no one talked to us about the nature of his illness and why he couldn't be successfully treated. It was years before I learned that it was melanoma that had ended his life.

By the 1970s, I was old enough to investigate the terrifying world of life-threatening illness myself. Quinlan was the start of my education. Besides reading everything I could about the case, I attended a public event where a panel of experts discussed Quinlan. The panel included a couple of law professors who talked about topics like the legal definition of death and the relevance of religious beliefs to medical and legal decision-making.

I was intrigued by their remarks. I was also surprised that they were talking about topics like these. I hadn't realized that law could be so interesting. Before this, I had never thought about becoming a lawyer. Because of Quinlan, I learned about the diversity of the law. I learned that law was relevant not only to business matters I regarded as dry and dull, but also to matters I cared about.

I decided to apply to law school, and in 1976 I began my legal education. At that time, law schools didn't offer many courses in law and medicine. Fortunately for me, Harvard Law School's faculty included Alan Stone, a psychiatrist who taught courses related to his field. He was kind and supportive of my interest in law and medicine, becoming a mentor of sorts. I loved the classes he taught and took as many as I could...