Short supply, great demand, ethical questions
To illustrate ethical dilemmas involved in rationing health care, hospital groups sometimes turn to the lifeboat exercise.
The situation is based on a true 1841 event. An American ship, the William Brown, left Liverpool for Philadelphia. The ship struck an iceberg 250 miles off Newfoundland and began to sink. There were two lifeboats but not enough seats to hold all passengers and crew. The officers had to decide which people got seats and which went down with the ship. When the William Brown sank, 31 drowned. A famous court case, United States v. Holmes, addressed how Alexander William Holmes implemented the first mate’s decision on who lived and who died.
Last century, penicillin became available in 1942. For months, it was in short supply. On the battlefield, field commanders had to decide whether the badly injured or the barely injured got the few penicillin shots.
President Trump promised a Florida group of senior citizens that once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, they will be the first to receive it.
When medicine supply is less than demand, how should deciders prioritize? Should scarce medicine go first to the elderly or the young, those with pre-existing conditions or the healthy, married or single, those with children or the childless, the governing authorities (captain and crew) or the passengers (private citizens)?
Is religion at all relevant? What if the three Abrahamic faith communities applied their minds, values and wisdom to these hard questions? What if, during this pandemic, synagogues, churches and mosques selected in each congregation a jury of 12 who, Zooming remotely, struggle with these gut-wrenching matters weekly and in a timely manner report out their faith-based findings and recommendations?
Or, will spiritual leaders in our communities leave the processing of deep and difficult, life-and-death ethical concerns to government bureaucrats?