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What's on TV tonight? Let's watch the ethics committee meeting.

Life-and-death situations are a mainstay of television drama, but the camera seldom pans away from the operating room or the ICU. In a recent episode of "In the Heat of the Night," the popular television crime show, the hospital ethics committee--heretofore known mainly to insiders--moved from the sober pages of bioethics journals to prime time.

Rebecca Ballard plots with her lover, Brian Moss, to kill her husband Peter for his million-dollar insurance policy. But the explosion rigged by Brian fails, and Peter winds up in the local hospital on life supports.

Enter the hospital ethics committee. In a scene set at detective Virgil Tibbs's dinner table, Althea--Virgil's wise and beautiful wife--discusses a request that she serve on the hospital ethics committee as a community representative. Virgil doesn't like the idea of Althea getting involved in life-and-death decisions, but is reminded that these issues shouldn't be reserved only for men. Asserting her independence, Althea indicates that she will agree to serve.

Just in time, Rebecca is called before the committee (composed of two doctors and Althea). Althea tells her that Peter will die if the machines are turned off. Then she asks Rebecca if she wants Peter kept alive at all costs. Presented with this choice, Rebecca has to conceal her real feelings. She asks that everything be done to keep him alive.

One of the doctors then asks Rebecca if Peter has a life-insurance policy. Surprised, Rebecca answers that he does. That's good, the doctor says, because the hospital bills to keep Peter alive will be very costly. When he dies, Rebecca will have money to pay the hospital. After the meeting, Althea reassures Rebecca that she would have made the same decision and repeats how lucky Rebecca is to have a life insurance policy to cover the high costs of Peter's care.

In the end, of course, the villains are unmasked (but not before another murder). Peter remains comatose and Rebecca is still liable for the hospital bill. She is not going to get the insurance money if he dies because she plotted to kill him.

What's wrong with this picture? It is unlikely that this case would even come before a committee, since no ethical dilemma or conflicting views have been identified. It is also unlikely that such a committee would have only three members and that a new community member would play such an important role in the discussion. Finally, whether Peter had health insurance is important to the plot but should be irrelevant to the ethics committee, although the hospital administration would surely be interested in whether he had health insurance.

No matter. If hospital ethics committees serve well as vehicles to move TV stories briskly to their conclusions, we can expect many more such entertainments. What's next--"Wiseguy: The Immanuel Kant Story," "Playing God," or "IRB--The Movie"?--Carol Levine, executive director, The Orphan Project, New York
COPYRIGHT 1992 Hastings Center
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Levine, Carol
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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