Medical Ethics Society Opening Survey: Where Do You Stand?
Medical ethics issues are rarely simple, sometimes painful and, all too often, emotionally charged. Proponents of both sides of any given issue can almost always justify their arguments, and parties caught in the middle may feel as though there is no single right answer. Although it is difficult to form definitive opinions without knowing all the details of specific cases, it is still valuable to begin these conversations in the abstract to explore the feelings, reactions, and values that determine the proper course of action.
The Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society (MES) has recently conducted a survey presenting 234 YU students with a series of abstract, opinion-based statements. MES requested that students select their level of agreement with each statement provided on a scale of 1 to 7 (1 being “Strongly Disagree” and 7 being “Strongly Agree,” unless otherwise specified). The anonymous survey was sent via email to YU students. Of the 234 responses, 46.6% were from Stern College for Women (SCW), 34.2% were in Yeshiva College (YC) and 19.2% were in the Sy Syms School of Business (SSSB). The survey did not differentiate between Syms-Men and Syms-Women. A $50 prize was offered to one lucky winner to motivate respondents. We have selected several of the questions for review in this article.
Students were first asked to select all of their main sources of regular news. Facebook was by far the most popular choice, with 50% of respondents indicating that they rely on it for their news updates. 30% stated that they turn to an email newsletter such as Buzzfeed News or The Skimm, 21% look to YouTube, and 42% to another website other than those mentioned. Only 29.5% listed the newspaper as a primary news outlet. Among the 18% of students who filled in “Other” as an option, 8 respondents listed Twitter, 7 respondents wrote that they do not follow the news, and another 5 indicated that they are informed of the news primarily from friends and family members.
Drug Price Restrictions
Consumers confront the issue of pharmaceutical drug prices on a daily basis, from over-the-counter treatments to prescription medications. When it comes to assigning a price to a life-saving drug, there may arise a conflict of values between promoting affordability for a critical resource and preserving the basis of free market enterprise. The majority of respondents (66%) believe to some degree that it is not appropriate for a company to take free rein when it comes to drug pricing. A minority (20%) reported that a company should be able to charge any price for a life-saving drug, with 3% of that group stating so in the strongest terms.
School Vaccination Policy
With the recent measles outbreak that began around a year ago and continues to remain a concern, the topic of vaccination has risen yet again to public consciousness. Regardless of parents’ individual decisions whether to vaccinate their children, schools are forced to develop uniform policies to approach the growing population of unvaccinated children. Respondents’ opinions were largely one-sided — a staggering 65% strongly agreed that schools have the right to deny admission to students who are not vaccinated. Another 17% agreed moderately, and 6% agreed mildy. Only 3% of respondents expressed strong disagreement.
Nine U.S. states and the District of Columbia permit a physician to prescribe medication that a patient can use to end his or her life when the patient is faced with a terminal diagnosis. An alternative approach to hastening death is for a physician to allow for refusal of necessary life-extending care, such as a respirator or feeding tube, thus allowing nature to take its course. While the outcomes of these scenarios may ultimately be the same, the question remains whether a distinction should be made between the different ‘methods’ of dying. Most respondents expressed in some capacity that the two routes should not be viewed as comparable. 67.5% of respondents stated that there is a difference between the two actions. Only 21% stated the two actions are similar.
While the legalization of medical marijuana has been on the upswing since it was first legalized in California in 1996, recreational marijuana use remains a major area of debate among policymakers. A number of states have already legalized recreational use, though neither New Jersey nor New York has yet officially joined their ranks. Our respondents were spread across the board on this issue, with no overwhelming majority prevailing, thus indicating a wide variety of opinions across the YU student body. The marginally largest group of respondents (19%) actually expressed a neutral stance. 44% responded that marijuana should not be legalized, compared to the 36% who agree that marijuana should be legalized. To compare, a 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that 62% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana — in other words, a majority of the broader American populace is in favor of legalization while YU respondents are highly divided.
Respecting Patient Wishes
The survey asks whether “it is more important for a doctor to respect a patient’s wishes than to do what is medically most beneficial.” There was no unanimous feeling among the students. The majority felt either neutral or only slightly opinionated about the issue.
Lying to a Patient
Although students expressed a range of opinions regarding the respect of a patient’s wishes (see above), a majority of students (60.4%) felt that it was not appropriate for a physician to lie to a patient. Interestingly, of the students who stated earlier that doctors must respect patients’ wishes, 15% answered that there are circumstances where it is appropriate for a doctor to lie to a patient.
The diversity of student opinion is indicative of the complexity of this issue. 44.2% of all students believed that abortion should generally be illegal, compared to just 36% who believed that abortion should generally be legal. 20% of students had neutral opinions on the legality of abortion. This result correlates with the fact that most YU undergraduate students lean Republican, a party which, for the most part, holds pro-life views.
When comparing the various undergraduate YU programs, it was found that 57% of YC students identified themselves as pro-life, versus only 32% of students at SCW who answered similarly. 51% of SSSB students identified themselves as pro-life.
The diversity and distribution of responses only reinforces the nuanced nature of these discussions. Opinion never develops in a vacuum; it is shaped by background, emotional preference, personal experience, religious ideology and a myriad of other factors. Some respondents even filled out the comments section of the survey to report that a neutral response of “4” on the agreement/disagreement scale was not the result of their lack of an opinion on that matter. They explained that they felt they could not, in good faith, give any response without knowing more about a given situation. They, therefore, selected the middle ground numeral to resist taking a stance. This too, is an opinion — namely, that one cannot have an opinion before understanding the facts on the ground.
One of the goals of the Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society is to help students take ownership of their beliefs by thinking critically about the gray areas and educating themselves about crucial issues. While this survey raises more questions than it answers, we hope it stimulates the students of YU to ask themselves where they stand and realize how much more there is to learn.
Do you feel strongly about any of these issues? We would love to hear from you and see you at future MES events! Contact Avigail Goldberger at firstname.lastname@example.org or Zev Hirt at email@example.com if you are interested in sharing your view and/or contributing to a future MES Commentator column.
Photo Credits: Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society