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Teaching Children Death Panel Ethics

It was the kind of assignment that makes you nostalgic for paper-mache volcanoes and baking soda. Freshmen and sophomores in a social studies class at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in Illinois were asked to make life-and-death decisions concerning people they’d never met.

While the exercise was theoretical, the thinking involved in the exercise has real-world consequences.

The lesson began by telling students that 10 people shared a serious problem: Without access to a dialysis machine, they would all die.

Unfortunately, they were told, the local hospital only has enough machines for six of them. The assignment was to decide who got the treatment and who didn’t. The students were asked to rank the potential recipients from one, the person they most wanted to receive treatment, to 10, the person they least wanted.

All they knew about the people was age, race and occupation or lack thereof: a housewife, doctor, lawyer, disabled person, cop, teacher, minister, college student, ex-convict and prostitute.

When a mother of one of the students learned about the assignment, she thought about how her own family, which included an autistic child and an elderly bed-ridden mother, would fare in the exercise. So she contacted the school and complained about the assignment.

As she told the website Champion News, “I am a special needs advocate and deal with the denial of services on a daily basis in my own home. I live this.” Her objection was that the students were too young and their minds weren’t developed enough to handle this kind of assignment.

The school insists that the assignment was about “social bias,” a claim that is belied by the fact that the following lesson was about abortion and when in pregnancy it was permissible.

When news about the assignment spread, people invoked the “death panels” that figure in the debate over health care reform. While understandable, making that connection misses a far larger and more pernicious point.

The assignment was a lesson in utilitarian ethics, the kind made famous — or infamous — by Princeton professor Peter Singer. The students were being taught to value a person’s worth and dignity on the basis of what kind of contribution they could make to society.

And it’s a lesson they took to heart: The students’ choices reflected the person’s social prestige and/or age. The top three were the doctor, lawyer and teacher. The bottom three were the college student, ex-convict, and the disabled person.

The objecting parent was right — impressionable 14- and 15-year-olds lacked any alternative to ranking people on the basis of their contribution to the maximization of overall happiness. It’s a criterion that by definition is stacked against the disabled, the elderly and the marginalized.

The utilitarian emphasis on “maximizing total human happiness” is, as Dr. Dianne Irving, a pioneer in the field, has written, at the heart of modern bioethics. This assumption, more than any law, is what Christians must oppose with all their might.

Our children must grow up believing in what Wesley J. Smith calls “human exceptionalism,” the “sheer moral importance of believing in the unique value of human beings.” This idea, which rooted in the Christian idea that every human being is created in the image of God, is all that stands between us and the real-world application of the lessons learned by those students in Illinois. After all, these students will be the ones making real decisions about the elderly and the unborn in just a few years.

That’s why I’d love for you to check out the newest edition of Chuck Colson’s “Doing the Right Thing” video series on ethics, designed especially for high school students, even those in public schools. Come to and click on this commentary to learn more.

BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

Publication date: October 25, 2013

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