Does the Constitution embrace a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy by abortion? What organization ensures medical studies is ethical? Is it acceptable for a patient to reject medical treatment that improves their quality of life?

The above questions are answered by previous cases considered to be landmarks in the medical and legal community. Several court decisions changed what is considered acceptable in the medical community. Explore the below five influential historical medial ethic cases.


Roe v. Wade

The 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade is still debated heavily in politics. Before this case, most of the United States’ laws only allowed women to get abortions if the life of the mother was in danger. The Supreme Court ruled in this case that the states was forbidden from outlawing or regulating abortions performed during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Although the court ruling was about 40 years ago, this is an issue for many that believe abortion is unethical.


Tuskegee Syphilis Study

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is an infamous clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the progression of untreated syphilis in poor black men in Alabama. This experiment took place between 1932 and 1972 and tricked participants into thinking they were receiving free health care from the government. The participants were unaware they would be infected with syphilis and left untreated. After a leak to the press, the experiments stopped, the Office for Human Research Protections was established, and federal laws were put in place that required Institutional Review Boards for studies that involve human subjects.

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Gonzales v. Oregon

In 1994, Oregon became the first state to legalize assisted suicide after enacting the Death with Dignity Act, which allows physicians to prescribe lethal drugs if the patient is terminally ill and within half a year of death. The Attorney General sought control of the situation under the Controlled Substances Act, but the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oregon and said the Attorney General could not overrule state laws. Since then, California has also approved assisted suicide, and it is an ethical topic with growing importance in the medical community.


Bouvia v. Superior Court

Elizabeth Bouvia was mentally competent, yet she suffered from cerebral palsy that left her wholly dependent on others to live. In 1983, she expressed a desire to end her life through an attempt to starve herself in a California public hospital. The hospital eventually ended up inserting a nasogastric tube against her wishes. She sued the hospital. After an appeal, it was decided that the hospital should respect the patient’s wishes if they are sound of mind when they make that decision.


Sherley v. Sebelius

In 2008, The Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Health was sued after President Obama took away some of the more strict guidelines and rules on stem cell research that President George Bush had put into place. It was decided in court that the NIH was following proper guidelines regarding stem cell research and the Supreme Court rejected to hear an appeal. Stem cell research is extremely controversial for many in the medical field because of the conflict of two very separate beliefs.

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History doesn’t only repeat itself, but is also serves as a precedent especially when legal cases are concerned. These five historical medical ethics cases continue to impact the legal and medical field.



Conger, K. (2013). Supreme Court Decision on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Case Ends

Research Uncertainty. Retrieved From:



Fisher, L. (1987). The Suicide Trap: Bouvia v. Superior Court and the Right to Refuse

Medical Treatment. Retrieved from:


Gray, F. D. (1998). The Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Montgomery: New South Books.


Roe V. Wade: Its History and Impact. (n.d.) Retrieved from:https://www.plannedpa


Teitelbaum, J. & Rosenbaum, S. (2007). Gonzales v. Oregon: Implications for Public

Health Policy and Practice. Retrieved from:


Nicole Thomas, RN, MSN, CCM
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