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Scholar’s Book on Law and Ethics of Medicine Released

Oxford University Press has recently released KIE scholar John Keown‘s newest book, entitledThe Law and the Ethics of Medicine: Essays on the Inviolability of Human Life, a work directed at practicing academic lawyers and practitioners of medical law. Keown’s book is unique in that it gives an in-depth analysis of the history of medical law, primarily in the U.K., while treating the philosophical issues that have been brought to bear on historical cases. As Keown puts it, medical law got off on the wrong foot when Glanville Williams mistook the principle of the inviolability of life for vitalism (the thesis that life is to be prolonged and protected at all costs), and he aims to set the record straight by clarifying these important principles in medical law.

Keown spends the first portion of the book examining the ways judges have interpreted the principle of inviolability of life and pointing out the ways in which they failed to distinguish this principle from vitalism. The opening chapters of the book feature a discussion of Glanville Williams and Sir Ian Kennedy, known as the grandfather and father of medical law (respectively); both judges made the mistake of confusing what they called the principle of the “sanctity of life” with vitalism. In his chapter “Replacing the Caricature,” Keown then argues for a positive conception of the inviolability of life that avoids the pitfalls of vitalism and makes sense of court rulings and laws before Williams and Kennedy.

In the latter parts of the book, Keown applies the principle of the inviolability of life to beginning of life and end of life issues. In his research, Keown found that laws in the U.K. dating back to the 1800s made clear that the concept of a “miscarriage” was used to describe the loss of anything from a fertilized egg to a more developed fetus, indicating that what the law against “procuring miscarriages” aimed to protect was something that began as early as fertilization. A better understanding of this legal history, Keown argues, would have led Justice Blackmun to render a different verdict in Roe v. Wade; while Blackmun claimed that common law prevented procuring miscarriage after quickening and inferred that it must have aimed at protecting women and not the unborn, a closer look at the legal history shows that not only was there no mention of quickening in earlier laws, but there was mention of life after fertilization. Keown walks the reader through similar cases in which misunderstandings of the legal history and the principle of inviolability of life heavily influenced judicial verdicts and precedents.

Law, Medicine, and Life will be an exceedingly useful tool for medical lawyers written by a medical lawyer. Its thorough treatment of the history of English medical law will prove an invaluable resource for practitioners of law relying on precedent. More importantly, perhaps, it gives one of the most foundational principles of medical law—the inviolability of life—a fair hearing.