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Moral Distress 10(3)

Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Volume 10, Number 3 (October 2013)
Guest Editor: Elizabeth Peter


“Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say”: Moral Distress and Bioethics

Leigh E. Rich and Michael A. Ashby

Death’s Dominion: An Appreciation of Ronald Dworkin (1931–2013)

Michael A. Ashby

Recent Developments

Assessment of Damages for Wrongful Birth and Consolidation in Advance Care Directives

Bill Madden, Tina Cockburn, and Jean E. Murray


Advancing the Concept of Moral Distress

Elizabeth Peter

A Reflection on Moral Distress in Nursing Together With a Current Application of the Concept

Andrew Jameton
The concept of moral distress can be extended from clinical settings to larger environmental concerns affecting health care. Moral distress—a common experience in complex societies—arises when individuals have clear moral judgments about societal practices, but have difficulty in finding a venue in which to express concerns. Since health care is large in scale and climate change is proving to be a major environmental problem, scaling down health care is inevitably a necessary element for mitigating climate change. Because it is extremely challenging to discuss these concerns in health care settings, those concerned about climate change and health care experience distress. This article outlines some philosophical concepts and perspectives that may be useful in mitigating this distress.

Moral Distress: An Innovative and Important Subject to Study in Brazil

Valéria Lerch Lunardi
There have been recurrent reports of fragilities in the Brazilian health system, especially in public institutions. In this commentary, I argue that moral distress in nursing in Brazil can still be considered an innovative and important subject of study. I also highlight the relevance of engaging educational institutions in the development of policies about environmental sustainability. It is relevant to continue studying moral distress in nursing and in health care generally in order to contribute to the transformation of reality by confronting the multiple common situations in the work environment that are recognized by many as morally problematic because they infringe upon the rights of people, patients, and health care professionals and are an affront to environmental health.

Seeing Ourselves as Moral Agents in Relation to Our Organizational and Sociopolitical Contexts

Patricia A. Rodney

Moral Distress and its Interconnection with Moral Sensitivity and Moral Resilience: Viewed From the Philosophy of Viktor E. Frankl

Kim Lützén and Béatrice Ewalds-Kvist
The interconnection between moral distress, moral sensitivity, and moral resilience was explored by constructing two hypothetical scenarios based on a recent Swedish newspaper report. In the first scenario, a 77-year-old man, rational and awake, was coded as “do not resuscitate” (DNR) against his daughter’s wishes. The patient died in the presence of nurses who were not permitted to resuscitate him. The second scenario concerned a 41-year-old man, who had been in a coma for three weeks. He was also coded as “do not resuscitate” and, when he stopped breathing, was resuscitated by his father. The nurses persuaded the physician on call to resume life support treatment and the patient recovered. These scenarios were analyzed using Viktor Frankl’s existential philosophy, resulting in a conceivable theoretical connection between moral distress, moral sensitivity, and moral resilience. To substantiate our conclusion, we encourage further empirical research.

Nurses’ Responses to Initial Moral Distress in Long-Term Care

Marie P. Edwards, Susan E. McClement, and Laurie R. Read
While researchers have examined the types of ethical issues that arise in long-term care, few studies have explored long-term care nurses’ experiences of moral distress and fewer still have examined responses to initial moral distress. Using an interpretive description approach, 15 nurses working in long-term care settings within one city in Canada were interviewed about their responses to experiences of initial moral distress, resources or supports they identified as helpful or potentially helpful in dealing with these situations, and factors that hindered nurses in their responses. Using a thematic analysis process, three major themes were identified from the nurses’ experiences: (i) the context of the situation matters; (ii) the value of coming together as a team; and (iii) looking for outside direction. The work of responding to initial moral distress was more fruitful if opportunities existed to discuss conflicts with other team members and if managers supported nurses in moving their concerns forward through meetings or conversations with the team, physician, or family. Access to objective others and opportunities for education about ethics were also identified as important for dealing with value conflicts.

Moral Distress Reexamined: A Feminist Interpretation of Nurses’ Identities, Relationships, and Responsibilities

Elizabeth Peter and Joan Liaschenko
Moral distress has been written about extensively in nursing and other fields. Often, however, it has not been used with much theoretical depth. This paper focuses on theorizing moral distress using feminist ethics, particularly the work of Margaret Urban Walker and Hilde Lindemann. Incorporating empirical findings, we argue that moral distress is the response to constraints experienced by nurses to their moral identities, responsibilities, and relationships. We recommend that health professionals get assistance in accounting for and communicating their values and responsibilities in situations of moral distress. We also discuss the importance of nurses creating “counterstories” of their work as knowledgeable and trustworthy professionals to repair their damaged moral identities, and, finally, we recommend that efforts toward shifting the goal of health care away from the prolongation of life at all costs to the relief of suffering to diminish the moral distress that is a common response to aggressive care at end-of-life.

Original Research

Freedom of Conscience in Health Care: Distinctions and Limits

Sean Murphy and Stephen J. Genuis
The widespread emergence of innumerable technologies within health care has complicated the choices facing caregivers and their patients. The escalation of knowledge and technical innovation has been accompanied by an erosion of moral and ethical consensus among health providers that is reflected in the abandonment of the Hippocratic Oath as the immutable bedrock of medical ethics. Ethical conflicts arise when the values of health professionals collide with the expressed wishes of patients or the dictates of regulatory bodies and administrators. Increasing attempts by groups outside of the medical profession to limit freedom of conscience for health providers has raised concern and consternation among some health professionals. The personal and professional impact of health professionals surrendering freedom of conscience and participating in actions they deem malevolent or unethical has not been adequately studied and may not be inconsequential when considering the recognized impact of other circumstances of coerced complicity. We argue that the distinction between the two ways that freedom of conscience is exercised (avoiding a perceived evil and seeking a perceived good) provides a rational basis for a principled limitation of this fundamental freedom.

How Pharmaceutical Industry Employees Manage Competing Commitments in the Face of Public Criticism

Wendy Lipworth, Kathleen Montgomery, and Miles Little
The pharmaceutical industry has been criticised for pervasive misconduct. These concerns have generally resulted in increasing regulation. While such regulation is no doubt necessary, it tends to assume that everyone working for pharmaceutical companies is equally motivated by commerce, without much understanding of the specific views and experiences of those who work in different parts of the industry. In order to gain a more nuanced picture of the work that goes on in the “medical affairs” departments of pharmaceutical companies, we conducted 15 semi-structured interviews with professionals working in medical departments of companies in Sydney, Australia. We show that this group of pharmaceutical professionals are committed to their responsibilities both to patients, research participants, and the public and to their companies. Despite the discrepancies between these commitments, our participants did not express much cognitive dissonance, and this appeared to stem from their use of two dialectically related strategies, one of which embraces commerce and the other of which resists the commercial imperative. We interpret these findings through the lens of institutional theory and consider their implications for pharmaceutical ethics and governance.

Conceptualising a Child-Centric Paradigm

Damian H. Adams
Since its inception, donor conception practices have been a reproductive choice for the infertile. Past and current practices have the potential to cause significant and lifelong harm to the offspring through loss of kinship, heritage, identity, and family health history, and possibly through introducing physical problems. Legislation and regulation in Australia that specifies that the welfare of the child born as a consequence of donor conception is paramount may therefore be in conflict with the outcomes. Altering the paradigm to a child-centric model, however, impinges on reproductive choice and rights of adults involved in the process. With some lobby groups pushing for increased reproductive choice while others emphasise offspring rights there is a dichotomy of interests that society and legislators need to address. Concepts pertaining to a shift toward a child-centric paradigm are discussed.

Reviving Brain Death: A Functionalist View

Samuel H. LiPuma and Joseph P. DeMarco
Recently both whole brain death (WBD) and higher brain death (HBD) have come under attack. These attacks, we argue, are successful, leaving supporters of both views without a firm foundation. This state of affairs has been described as “the death of brain death.” Returning to a cardiopulmonary definition presents problems we also find unacceptable. Instead, we attempt to revive brain death by offering a novel and more coherent standard of death based on the permanent cessation of mental processing. This approach works, we claim, by being functionalist instead of being based in biology, consciousness, or personhood. We begin by explaining why an objective biological determination of death fails. We continue by similarly rejecting current arguments offered in support of HBD, which rely on consciousness and/or personhood. In the final section, we explain and defend our functionalist view of death. Our definition centers on mental processing, both conscious and preconscious or unconscious. This view provides the philosophical basis of a functional definition that most accurately reflects the original spirit of brain death when first proposed in the Harvard criteria of 1968.

Coercion, Incarceration, and Chemical Castration: An Argument From Autonomy

Thomas Douglas, Pieter Bonte, Farah Focquaert, Katrien Devolder, and Sigrid Sterckx
In several jurisdictions, sex offenders may be offered chemical castration as an alternative to further incarceration. In some, agreement to chemical castration may be made a formal condition of parole or release. In others, refusal to undergo chemical castration can increase the likelihood of further incarceration though no formal link is made between the two. Offering chemical castration as an alternative to further incarceration is often said to be partially coercive, thus rendering the offender’s consent invalid. The dominant response to this objection has been to argue that any coercion present in such cases is compatible with valid consent. In this article, we take a different tack, arguing that, even if consent would not be valid, offering chemical castration will often be supported by the very considerations that underpin concerns about consent: considerations of autonomy. This is because offering chemical castration will often increase the offender’s autonomy, both at the time the offer is made and in the future.


Nursing Ethics in Everyday Practice

Anne Simmonds

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness

Karen Franklin

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America

Patricia Green

The Sessions

Sally Sargeant

Case Studies

Nursing Facing the Loss of the Right to Universal Health Access in Spain

Andreu Bover, Cristina Moreno, and Margalida Miro

It Is Not Your Fault: Suggestions for Building Ethical Capacity in Individuals Through Structural Reform to Health Care Organisations

Sarah Winch, Michael Sinnott, and Ramon Shaban

Moral Distress and Advanced Practice Nursing: The Need for Morally Habitable Work Environments

Natalie Beavis

The Faces of Injustice

Susan Dorr Goold