Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Wednesday August 27, 2014

[1.] Introduction to the Course: Arguments about the Baby Theresa Case.


[1.1] The Case of Baby Theresa.[1]


Theresa Ann Campo Pearson was born in Florida on March 21, 1992. News accounts of her story referred to her simply as “Baby Theresa.” She suffered from


anencephaly (df.): the condition of an infant born with its cerebrum, cerebellum and part of its skull and scalp missing; infants born with this condition will never be conscious and nearly always die within several days after birth.[2]

·         “Anencephaly occurs in one in 500 pregnancies. Over 95 percent identified prenatally are aborted. Of those carried to term, 60 percent are stillborn. … About 300 anencephalic babies are born alive each year.” (Pence 248)[3]

·         Anencephalic infants who are alive at birth usually die within a few hours or days.[4]

·         “[W]ith maximal supportive care, some anencephalic infants could survive indefinitely.” (Pence 250)

·         Baby Theresa’s parents were unmarried, and her mother, Laura Campo, had no medical insurance. She did not see a doctor about her pregnancy until her 24th week, and she did not learn that the child she carried was anencephalic until the eighth month of her pregnancy, too late for a legal abortion to be performed.[5] “Like most mothers of anencephalic fetuses, Laura said that if she had known the diagnosis earlier, she would have aborted.” (Pence 248)


Anencephalics are the major potential source of donor organs for other babies born with congenital defects. When the recipient is an infant, a donor organ must be very small, and so an infant donor is needed. However, few infants are involved in accidents that leave them brain dead but with healthy organs. Babies who die as a result of abuse or from sudden infant death syndrome usually have damaged organs that are unsuitable for transplantation.” (Pence 248, emphasis added)


Theresa’s parents wanted to donate her organs to other infants, and their physicians agreed. For this to work, they could not wait for her to die naturally—by that time her organs would be too degraded to be transplanted into other bodies.


However, removing her organs would cause immediate death, and Florida law prohibits removing organs until the organ donor is legally dead. A circuit court judge determined that, even though Theresa was anencephalic, she was not legally dead.[6] So Theresa’s organs were not removed. She died on the ninth day after she was born, and her organs were never used.


There was a serious difference of opinion in this case. Some people thought taking the organs would be wrong (immoral); but others (including Theresa’s parents and physicians) thought that her organs should be taken. Parties on both sides of this debate gave arguments to support their opinions…



[1.1.2.] Arguments about Baby Theresa.


But we do not want to know simply what people’s opinions are about this case. We want to know the TRUTH of the matter. Would taking those organs, and thereby killing Baby Theresa, have been wrong, or should her doctors have taken her organs?


To discover which position is correct, we must look at the arguments that can be given on each side


argument (df.): an attempt to convince someone that a claim is true by providing reasons or evidence in support of that claim; the reasons/evidence are the argument’s premises, and the claim that those premises support is the argument’s conclusion.

·         Note: the above paragraph contains contextual definitions of “premise” and “conclusion”.


Here is an argument in support of taking the organs…


The Benefits Argument (EMP p.3)

If we can benefit someone without harming anyone else, we ought to do so.

Transplanting the organs would benefit the other children without harming Baby Theresa.

Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs.


And here is an argument against taking the organs:


The Argument from the Wrongness of Killing  (EMP p.4)

It is wrong to kill one person to save another.

Taking Theresa’s organs would be killing her to save others.

Therefore, taking the organs would be wrong.


DISCUSSION: Which of the two arguments about Baby Theresa is better?


During the next lecture, we will return to some of the points that Rachels makes in sesc.5 and 6 of today’s reading, “Reason and Impartiality” and “The Minimum Conception of Morality”.




Stopping point for Wednesday August 27. For next time:

1.      Read the syllabus thoroughly and let me know as soon as possible if you have any questions.

2.      Study today’s lecture notes.

3.      Read (and study!) Right Thing to Do pp.19-21.

4.      You may have a pop quiz at the beginning of the next class over this reading AND over today’s lecture notes.



[1] This case is described in Elements of Moral Philosophy ch.1, one of your readings for the next class meeting.


[2] For more information, see “NINDS Anencephaly Information Page,” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke < >, retrieved August 26, 2013.


[3] References to Pence are to Gregory Pence, Medical Ethics: Accounts of Ground-Breaking Cases, 6th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York, 2011.


[4] NINDS Anencephaly Information Page, URL = < >, retrieved August 26, 2013.


[5] Currently, abortion is illegal at the 24th week of pregnancy in Florida. Guttmacher Institute, “State Policies in Brief as of August 1, 2013,” URL = <>, retrieved August 26, 2013.

[6] The judge in question relied in part on the so-called Harvard Criteria of brain death, which include lack of spontaneous breathing. Theresa was breathing on her own, so she did not meet these criteria of brain death. Months after Baby Theresa died, the Florida Supreme Court considered the matter and upheld the lower court’s decision. The full text of its decision in this case is here: < >.