“Everything you might have ever learned in a philosophy class about medical ethics,” William Meadow whispered to a crowd of about 20 students, “[is] useless.”

At a Master’s Tea Tuesday in Saybrook College, Meadow, a professor of neonatology at the University of Chicago, led a discussion about the ethics surrounding euthanasia. Because philosophy often presents abstract, universal solutions, Meadow said, it often fails to resolve such difficult decisions.

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“The problem with bringing philosophical implications into these discussions [is that] they get the easy questions right, and they don’t help with the hard ones,” Meadow said. “I’ve been accused of not having a moral compass before, and I’m OK with that.”

Meadow presented six case studies that deal with the questions of when it is morally acceptable to take a patient off life support, who is responsible for making the decision and what the decision says about society as a whole.

For the first half of the interactive talk, Meadow presented a case in which an elderly man had been diagnosed with a cancer that had spread throughout his body, causing multiple-organ failure and leaving the man unable to breathe by himself. Meadow argued that as the details of the case changed, the decision to place the man on a ventilator became more complicated, to the point where audience members were unable to say what they would do.

When the conversation turned to a situation where the elderly man had no one to speak on his behalf, Stephen Paquin ’11 asked whether the writings of 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas could provide an answer to whether to keep the man alive. But Meadow said the writings of many philosophers cannot apply to modern medicine.

“Medical ethics changed drastically the minute you could keep people alive mechanically,” Meadow said. “Aquinas and Aristotle just didn’t know jack about medical ethics.”

New Haven resident and attendee Joshua Safran asked whether utilitarianism, which calls for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people, could answer whether the $2,000 per day it costs to keep a patient on a ventilator would be better spent if used elsewhere.

Meadow said this would be impossible in the United States because the money could not be reallocated under Medicaid, which helps to cover some health care costs for low-income individuals.

Discussion then turned to an infant born 13 weeks prematurely, who needed a ventilator to breathe. In this case, Meadow said, the parents did not want to keep the baby on a ventilator because they were not sure what health complications the infant would face later.

Meadow said that the question of whether the baby would face physical or mental disabilities was important to consider. For example, if the baby only needed braces in order to walk, Meadow said that most people would disagree with the parents’ decision to not put the baby on a ventilator. But if the baby were mentally challenged to the point where the parents would need to care for it indefinitely, Meadow said many would probably agree with the parents’ choice.

Meadow also serves as a professor of community health sciences within the Institute for Molecular Pediatric Sciences at the University of Chicago and assistant director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.