The Dillings’ Terrible Choice

As the Ethics Scoreboard has had several occasions to point out, there is law and there is ethics, and the two frequently fail to intersect. Then there is confusion, when the law endorses two ethical principles that can be in direct conflict.

That seems to be the result of a recent case in Illinois, “Jane Doe” v Dilling, in which the parents of a young man infected with the AIDS virus were held liable because they didn’t warn his fiancée of their son’s illness, even when she asked them directly. Now the son has died of AIDS, and the fiancée now has full-blown AIDS as well. “Our theory was not that the defendants had a Good Samaritan obligation under the law to voluntarily offer unsolicited information about their son’s condition. Our theory was that when the defendants chose to provide information to my client about their son’s condition, they then assumed a duty to provide accurate information,” the plaintiff’s lawyer has said.

Illinois has an HIV confidentiality law. According to the Dillings’ lawyer, they could have been sued by their son had they divulged his illness. This may be true, and there is certainly an ethical principle at stake in various AIDS laws that allow an individual to keep his or her illness private. But the situation presented in this case is not a tough call, ethically speaking. The son was acting irresponsibly. The parents, according to the lawsuit, only had a legal obligation to divulge his condition when the fiancée asked them about his condition, but they had an ethical obligation before that. Their son was placing a young woman’s life, and conceivably others, at risk. They had to persuade him to reveal his condition, or do it for him.

No one can pretend that this wasn’t a wrenching situation for the Dillings. One can only imagine their anguish, forced to choose between remaining loyal to their ill son and violating his confidence to protect his fiancée. It is also unfortunate that they found themselves whipsawed between civil liability and the Illinois statute. Doing the right thing in this case required risking a civil suit and worse, damaging the parent-child relationship, but it also was a matter of life and death. These are the times when courage and the willingness to sacrifice for others are vital. The Dillings are not bad people, but their ethical compass failed when it was most needed, and now a woman is incurably ill.

None of us knows when we our values will be tested, or how dire the stakes may be when we are. None of us can be sure how we will respond. The sad dilemma of the Dillings and their son is a cautionary tale that can be best used to steel ourselves for the ethical challenge that may never come. Privacy, confidentiality and loyalty are all important values, but in the toughest ethical choices, life is the most important value of all.

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