Teaching Medical Ethics – Who Decides What Happens With Your Body?

 By Dawn Cox


I’ve been teaching this unit for a few years as I think it is a fascinating and engaging topic for older students to study medical ethics in religious education. The unit is based on the enquiry question “Who decides what happens with your body?”.

This unit is appropriate for upper key stage 4 or key stage 5 as it deals with some potentially highly sensitive and emotional case studies. However, it is an enquiry which can take you in many directions. There are regularly news items on these issues so look out for these to help apply the ethical theories to real life contexts.

The purpose of the unit is to consider what the different answers to the enquiry question might be and how this might be decided. They learn the content alongside real life case studies.

In introducing students to the topic, they list who might be in charge of their body; who decides what happens to it? They initially think this a simple, if not a silly question. However, the development of the enquiry helps them to realise that things are not quite as simple as they may think.

Depending on the length of the unit you want to deliver it can include the following areas:

  • Euthanasia
  • Assisted dying
  • Organ transplant and consent
  • Turning off life support machines
  • Forced abortion
  • Forbidden abortion
  • Saviour siblings
  • Designer babies
  • Frozen eggs/sperm
  • Conjoined twins
  • Use of contraception (to avoid pregnancy)

You can find video resources online for all of these (see below for some suggestions), which can be used as a stimulus for discussion. Look at news sites as they often have short info videos on particular cases. You can also use news articles that outline case studies for students to read through. Be aware that if you are going to get students to do any sort of independent research online on these areas they may encounter issues such as content being blocked by e-safety systems, biased sources and potentially upsetting images or descriptions.

The beauty of the topic is that it can be approached from a single or multi-disciplinary point of view, depending on your context and cohort.


To approach the topic from a Philosophical/Ethical perspective, using the following would give students some key ethical theories to apply to case studies. Students can be taught the theory and then consider how these might be applied to different case studies.


The morality of an action is dependent on its consequences, with the morally right action having the best overall consequences. Students could then focus on Utilitarianism and consider the overall ‘utility’ of any possible actions; considering the actions that maximise human welfare or well-being.

For students that are considering a career in medicine, the unit could include a focus on the four pillars of medical ethics: Respect for autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice.

At key stage 5 it would be a good activity to allocate small groups or students a theory and for them to present how it would be applied to one of the case studies e.g. applying consequentialism to the case of Mary and Jodie.


It is simple to investigate the issue through a theological lens, using sources of wisdom and authority from different religions. Again, depending on your context and prior knowledge of students, you can approach this at different levels.

A common approach is to look at the sanctity of life; life is holy, special and given by God. What do religious texts say about this? Typical Bible references to include are Genesis 1:27, Jeremiah 1:5 and 1 Corinthians 6:19.

If students have already looked at textual interpretation and diversity within religious traditions this is a good opportunity to use these skills to investigate how there are different views to these issues between denominations/schools despite using the same source of authority e.g. the Bible. Students can then consider these different interpretations and apply them to the case studies.

In Islam, students may look at the Qur’an and Hadith with respect to beliefs about ensoulment, which applies to attitudes towards abortion and contraception. There are diverse views on when a foetus gets its soul and therefore this will affect beliefs about what can/can’t happen to it. e.g. One Hadith suggests it is 120 days from conception….“Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then God sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his deeds, his livelihood, the date of his death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched. Then the soul is breathed into him…” Sahih al-Bukhari: 3036

Students might also look at these issues in relation to beliefs about reincarnation. For example, in Hinduism there have been cases where conjoined twins have been worshipped as incarnations of Hindu deities.

Social Sciences

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights supports bodily autonomy as a human right.  Amnesty International has a global campaign called “My body my rights” (https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/my-body-my-rights/) which students may look at to see the worldwide situation in particular for women.

Pew research has a wealth of resources on people’s views and beliefs about many of these areas. Sometimes they are U.S focused but some are worldwide.  For example, this article “Views on End-of-Life Medical Treatments“  (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2013/11/21/views-on-end-of-life-medical-treatments/) looks at end of life care, who should decide? and the role of doctors in this.

Case Studies

It should be obvious to colleagues that all content in this unit must be dealt with carefully and sensitively. This is particularly important when looking at the case studies.

Archie Battersby

Following a tragic accident, Archie Battersby was kept alive on a life support machine. However, medical professionals believed that he was consequently brain dead and therefore Archie’s parents did not want this to happen. This case is interesting because a Christian organisation funded his parent’s lawyers so it opens up further questions.

Blood transfusion case

In this case study (“Judge orders doctors to give Jehovah’s Witness girl blood transfusion against her parents’ wishes” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/jehovahs-witness-blood-transfusion-doctor-judge-ruling-girl-leeds-nhs-trust-religion-a8977066.html) there is an example of a judge being the decision maker, going against parental wishes. It provides a good opportunity to look at the beliefs behind the parents’ view.

Mary and Jodie

Conjoined twins, Mary and Jodie, would not both survive if they were to be separated. Their Maltese parents were devout Catholics and disagreed with any operation that would knowingly kill one of the twins. In the end, it went to the High court for a judge to decide.

Forced abortion

Until recently the Chinese ‘one child’ policy meant that a woman that had consequent pregnancies was at risk of a government forced abortion.   Articles such as “One in seven UK women forced to have either a baby or an abortion, study shows” (The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/pregnancy-coercion-reproduction-abortion-a8834306.html ) brings this home with UK statistics for students to consider.

The Enquiry Question

Finally, students then answer the enquiry question “Who decides what happens with your body?”, using the theories and case studies to present different perspectives.

Throughout the unit, students should have learnt that there are many possible answers to the question (yourself, the Government, a judge, your parent/s, God) and it may depend on the place, religious belief, personal situation as to which might apply in each case.

Their answer should demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the disciplinary knowledge and application to the case studies.

They can also reflect on their initial response to the question and how this has potentially changed through the unit, reflecting on their positionality (personal knowledge).

I think when done thoughtfully, that this unit is an excellent way to engage students in matters of life and death. If students are not studying this as part of their GCSE/A level course they might consider using content from this unit as a foundation for an HPQ/EPQ title. It may also be of particular interest to students in key stage 5 going on to study medicine, regardless of whether or not they have taken religious studies at A Level.

Suggested resources for teaching medical ethics

Truetube https://www.truetube.co.uk/

BBC  https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos

The BBC – using a search engine include ‘BBC’ in your search and look at ‘videos’

Is it OK to have a child to save another? – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zmhpc

Pew research https://www.pewresearch.org/


You can read more articles by Dawn Cox here.


Dawn Cox is a Head of RE & SLE in Essex. She is also an education author and blogger.

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