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What would Jane want? 

Emeritus Prof., Philosophy, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

I read Colin Rigley’s excellent account of the ethical dilemma regarding “Jane” in the story “Shades of Solomon” (Dec. 10). Jane was born with a malformed leg and foot but her parents and physicians disagree about the appropriate therapy; whether to amputate part of her foot and attach a prosthesis or continue lengthening her leg. 

I was surprised at the reaction of Professor Nelson of the University of Santa Clara to the case, who was at a loss about what to recommend. He probably did not know there are similar cases in the legal and ethical literature. For example, in the case called “In re Sampson 317 NY 2d 641” a boy named Kevin Sampson had a disfiguring tumor on the side of his head. His mother would not let him play with other children or go to school because of the ridicule she rightly feared he would receive.  She refused to consent to a series of operations to remove the tumor because she was afraid he would die. Physicians told her this was not likely and the court eventually ordered the surgery, arguing that the child’s educational and social development outweighed the low probability he would die during surgery.

The dilemma this case presents is the tension between reasonable parental desire for their child to lead a normal life and the desire to protect him or her from the pain of multiple surgeries and possible injury or death due to infection. These desires sometimes come into conflict, as they did in the Sampson case. But regarding Jane, unlike Sampson, there were competing physicians. In Sampson, the physicians agreed the tumor could and should be removed, but in Jane’s case, one surgeon wants to continue bone-lengthening procedures and another wants to amputate and attach a prosthetic device. Both alternatives are reasonable, which explains why the judge did not want to intervene in a parental and medical dispute.

 The judge should at least have asked the child what she wants. As the author of several books and articles on family law and the rights of children, I see no reason why the girl should not be consulted about whether her life prospect of wearing a prosthetic limb would be acceptable.

-- Laurence Houlgate - Paso Robles

-- Laurence Houlgate - Paso Robles

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