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Response to Mary Rowell
  1. F Baylis
  1. Correspondence to:
 F Baylis
 Department of Bioethics and Department of Philosophy; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada B3H 4H7; Francoise.BaylisDal.Ca

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In responding to Ms Rowell’s commentary on her original paper the author points out that the job of all bioethicists, namely, speaking truth to power, is a daunting task which is unlikely to succeed “if we do not learn to ask for and to accept, to offer and to provide, moral support and meaningful help.”

In my article “The Olivieri debacle: where were the heroes of bioethics?”1 I make four comments about Ms Rowell’s involvement in the case. In my first comment relating to Ms Rowell, I suggest that a careful reader of the Naimark report could reasonably conclude “that the role of bioethics in helping to resolve the controversy was, at best, very limited”. In reaching this conclusion, I relied on the findings of the two official reports/inquiries about this case. Though the two reports reach different conclusions about the case, there appears to be agreement on the very limited role of bioethics. As noted in my original article, in the 160 page Naimark report there are but a few paragraphs about bioethics and Ms Rowell’s role in the Olivieri case. This is surprising, and I say as much in my article. In the 540 page report of the Committee of Inquiry, which Ms Rowell describes as “a review that I believe to provide a public report of integrity”, little more detail is provided regarding Ms Rowell’s role. I included all references to Ms Rowell from the first report in the original article. I did not do so with the second report. This was not done to diminish any contribution(s) Ms Rowell might have made. In my view, no new evidence germane to the points I wanted to make was provided in the text that I did not include in my article.

In light of Ms Rowell’s concerns that her role in the Olivieri affair is not properly described, I offer here the information about Ms Rowell contained in the Committee of Inquiry report.

In June 1998, Professor Rowell was asked to intercede by Dr Durie and she agreed to do so. She approached Dr Buchwald, who suggested she undertake a review of the facts of the matter, as a preliminary step to a mediation process. Professor Rowell agreed and in discussions with Dr Buchwald drew up terms of reference and a list of persons to interview. She was to report on facts and make suggestions on helpful courses of action from a bioethics perspective, with a view to getting “everyone around the same table” eventually. The list of persons she interviewed included several members of the hospital executive, and Drs Olivieri, Chan, Dick, Durie, and Gallie. Following the round of interviews, Professor Rowell concluded that mediation efforts would be futile. She told this Committee that she subsequently decided to offer support to Dr Olivieri in the ethical stand she took on the need to inform trial participants of a risk.2

The only other reference to Ms Rowell in the Committee of Inquiry report appears on page 257 and the relevant excerpt is quoted in my original article. The reader now has the complete official record of Ms Rowell’s participation in the case as represented in the two official reports/inquiries. I am sure there is much more to tell than is on the record and I sincerely hope that one day Ms Rowell will tell the rest of the story. Until then, commentators only have the formal record to rely upon.

Ms Rowell objects to my second comment in the original article that describes her as the more junior member of the bioethics department. This description was not meant to offend, but simply to reflect the fact that the department of bioethics had a director. Ms Rowell describes her relationship with Dr Harrison as collegial and not hierarchical. Collegial relations notwithstanding, Ms Rowell reported to Dr Harrison and was, therefore, within the formal administrative structure of the department, the more junior member. Ms Rowell further states that she was the “person to speak for the department on this issue within and outside the hospital.” This description is not consistent with my experience in this case. Correspondence directed by myself and colleagues to the hospital administration about this affair was answered by Dr Harrison, not Ms Rowell (C Harrison, personal communication, 1999).

The third comment about Ms Rowell concerns the following quote from a media article: “...she was treated so rudely by the hospital executive when she raised concerns about the Olivieri affair that she considered resigning”. This quote is followed by my statement: “Indeed, she did eventually resign.” While this statement is accurate, a reader might conclude from the juxtaposition of the quote and my statement that there was a causal connection between the decision to resign and the Olivieri case. Ms Rowell insists that her “departure from the Hospital for Sick Children was in no way caused by the Olivieri case”. Ms Rowell does allow, however, that there may have been a connection: “It may be the case that such a decision was made easier by the stresses and sheer volume of the work entailed in the Olivieri situation”; she merely denies that the connection was causal. I should therefore make clear that the juxtaposition implies a connection but not necessarily a causal connection. Further to this, I should like to add that I do not believe that I am “arguing ... after the fact of another’s actions ...[without] correct and clear facts.” To my knowledge, I am only accurately reporting information already in the public domain—either in one or other of the official reports/inquiries or in public comments made by Ms Rowell. I readily acknowledge that information in the public domain may not be full information.

The fourth comment about Ms Rowell in the original article is that she “has chosen to remain silent and she has never publicly told her story. The closest she has come to doing so was at the 13th Annual meeting of the Canadian Bioethics Society in the Fall of 2001. During the question period after a plenary lecture titled A Reflection on the ‘Place’ of Bioethics,3 which criticised the Canadian bioethics community at large for its silence on two internationally prominent ethics cases originating in Toronto—one involving Dr Nancy Olivieri, the other involving Dr David Healy—Ms Rowell spoke passionately from the floor about the unbearable stress and lack of institutional support she experienced while involved in this case in her official capacity as bioethicist. She indicated that she had no choice but to leave her position at the hospital.” Prior to Ms Rowell’s replies to my article,4,5 that statement was true. In her print reply to my article, she insists she was a vocal supporter of Dr Olivieri but this is a separate issue from whether Ms Rowell has ever publicly told her story. Ms Rowell was invited to contribute an article to the special symposium on the Olivieri case but did not do so. I am glad that my article has prompted her to write about her experience and I sincerely hope she will write in more detail soon.

In closing, I should say that I believe that Ms Rowell did her best under very difficult circumstances. Ms Rowell writes that “Perhaps Baylis is correct that I should have done more. What more I might have done, at that time, is unclear to me.” For the record, my comment about doing more was not directed to Ms Rowell, but to all Canadian bioethicists—this includes Ms Rowell, but it also includes myself. What more could I have done? With the benefit of hindsight, I believe that I should have pursued matters further than I did. What more could Ms Rowell have done? She could, among other things, have accepted offers of assistance from other bioethicists across the country who were prepared to take a stand. What could the Canadian bioethics community have done? It could, among other things, have come together and acted in concert to support the bioethicists in the local institution, to explain the issues raised in the case to the public, and to lobby for law and policy reform necessary to ensure that such a case would never happen again anywhere in Canada.

The lesson for all of us in this is that speaking truth to power—the job of bioethics—is a daunting task and one that we are unlikely to succeed at if we do not learn to ask for and to accept, to offer and to provide, moral support and meaningful help.

In responding to Ms Rowell’s commentary on her original paper the author points out that the job of all bioethicists, namely, speaking truth to power, is a daunting task which is unlikely to succeed “if we do not learn to ask for and to accept, to offer and to provide, moral support and meaningful help.”

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