To pull the plug, or not to pull the plug?

by Beacon Staff • April 1, 2009

Last Thursday marked a somber day in the life of father Tom Cooper when he asked 45 Emerson students to decide the fate of his brain-dead son, William. After nearly an hour and forty-five minutes of debate, students-some tentative and apologetic, others grimly resolute-raised their hands to either save or condemn his beloved Bill.

Except Dr. Thomas Cooper doesn't have a son. He has only his daughter who, as far as anyone knows, is alive and well.

It was a mock case study, billed as Tom's Son Must Die, an assignment Cooper's class performed instead of listening to a lecture. Cooper asked students to decide the fate of his make-believe son, Bill, who was in a coma and on life support, with a very small chance of recovery. The class consisted of four separate events, as students and guest speakers grappled with the ethical issue of pitting quality against sanctity of life.

First, Cooper questioned a three-person panel of guest speakers. Health practitioner Eileen Flanagan, who works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center where she was previously both supervisor of intensive care patients and on ethics committees, counsels families on situations much like the class' hypothetical. Emerson's chair for spiritual life Rabbi Albert Axelrad brought the religious perspective and theatre education junior Linnea Rodriguez, acting as Bill's long-time girlfriend, made up the rest of the panel.

Six students then presented arguments as famous thinkers Frederick Nietzsche, Aristotle, John Rawls, Carol Gilligan, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Later, two more students, one arguing for and one against keeping Bill alive, gave a formal, timed debate with a student moderator. Finally, a few students who wrote papers as "experts" gave their personal opinions based on material Cooper taught prior to Thursday's class. At the end of it all, students voted as to whether Cooper's imaginary son should live or die.

"Students have to think about a dozen perspectives rather than just mine," said Cooper, who joked that the case study increases the odds of people doing the assigned reading. "Research shows that usually when students interact and become fully engaged, they often feel invigorated and love the class more than a series of long lectures."

Cooper often incorporates drama into his classes, students said. In the Contemporary Ethics class this semester, he once taught the first half of a lesson pretending to be Nietzsche, said writing, literature and publishing freshman Katie Walsh. Another time, he invited actors to sit in class without the students' knowledge. He then threw out a hypothetical, saying he had acquired $450 and asked students how it should be spent. One of his guests began to demand the money because his mother was sick, while another begged a larger share because he lost his job and a third asked it be split evenly.

"I really like the way he brings in outside opinions and acts things out," Walsh said. "It helps us look at things differently."

Though this is only the second year Cooper has taught this particular class, he has 27 years of experience teaching in other classes and, he said, has never come across any serious disagreements with his methods.

Throughout Thursday's event, until the final vote, students and guests remained in character. Rodriguez, whose eyes welled up playing Bill's devastated girlfriend, even let out a sob when Flanagan explained the unlikelihood of recovery from a coma as serious as the hypothetical Bill's. Students not acting were allowed to question any of the philosophers from the beginning of class, who still had to answer as their respective philosopher would.

"I think a topic like euthanasia is especially a topic that should be explored through an actual circumstance," Rodriguez said. "I think it was a great activity."

When the time came to vote, four students elected to keep Tom's son on life support. One student was undecided, and 40 voted to "pull the plug." Cooper, still acting as Bill's father, somberly thanked the class for their input and appreciation of the difficult situation. The following Tuesday, he revealed his decision.

To show how persuasive all arguments were, Bill will be taken off life support on June 1, but not before two entire months are devoted to re-consulting doctors and searching for psychological triggers-like a favorite ice cream tasted or song played.

Cooper, again acting as the broken father, described these last efforts as attempts to ensure there was absolutely no hope before pulling the plug because, he said, "Hope undocumented can go on for years."