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Hastings Center Report

Activism and the Clinical Ethicist

Abstract: Although clinical ethics scholarship and practice has largely avoided assuming an activist stance, the many health care crises of the last eighteen months motivated a distinct change: On listserves, in blog postings, and in published essays, activist language has permeated conversations over such issues as the impact of triage policies on persons with disabilities and of color, and how the health care system has historically failed African Americans.

In this paper, I defend this turn, arguing that clinical ethicists should embrace activism—generally, and with particular emphasis on institutional, mesolevel concerns. Ethicists are often uniquely situated to understand the structural factors that regularly motivate clinical ethics cases, and they are often in a privileged position to be effective change agents. In making this case, I also stress the need not to overstep one’s skills and to be acutely cognizant of the political risks associated with such work.

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