I’m a nearly 70-year-old single mother living with an adult son of 40 who has schizoaffective disorder, which is a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar conditions. I testified at a juried trial that for over 10 years he has been averse to staying on antipsychotic meds, and that, as a result, he has been jailed, and that he has attacked me repeatedly in outbursts of rage. But two of 12 jurors didn’t agree that my son should be obliged to stay on meds. As a result, he has just been released from a medication mandate. Now, for the umpteenth time, distant family members are urging me to boot my mentally disabled son out of the apartment we share.
My son is brilliant, with a genius I.Q. He’s also very loving when he’s on his meds. Off his meds, he’s a real menace and a threat to both my day-to-day peace of mind and my physical safety. But if I evict him, he’ll be homeless and destitute.
I believe that it is morally wrong to put a mentally disabled person out on the streets to fend for himself. I further believe that a parent must look after her disabled child — but now that’s at the risk of my own peace of mind and safety and perhaps my life. What’s the right choice?— Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
The court’s decision — which was in your son’s favor, though evidently not in his interest — held that your son must be treated as an autonomous person responsible for his own life. One way of abiding by that decision would be to tell him that he can stay with you only while he’s on his meds. You wouldn’t be evicting him; you would simply be putting reasonable terms on his accommodation. Through the court system, it appears, he successfully resisted involuntary treatment. That was a decision he made. Now he can decide to take measures that would keep a roof over his head.
Or he can decide not to. I know that it’s often hard to persuade people to stay on their medications. To go by the research I’ve seen, perhaps half or more of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder are “nonadherent.” Many of them don’t like the side effects of drugs; some prefer being manic to being medicated. And your son’s condition may well mean that your son is in an especially poor position to see that he’s better off medicated. In a lucid moment, he might agree to try a long-acting injectable, easing adherence. That’s a form of what scholars sometimes call “self-binding,” in which our present self puts constraints on our future self. So is getting a mortgage. We bind our future selves all the time.
Please be clear that you’re not obliged to look after him at the risk of your life and health — and besides, if you’re incapacitated, he’ll be worse off, too. Expelling him from your home if he refuses treatment isn’t a way of punishing your son for defiance; it’s a way of protecting yourself from danger. If he ends up jailed again, he could be deemed a threat to himself and to others, and another cycle of involuntary treatment could start. Alas, your son’s keen intellect may help him secure what he wants, at the expense of what he needs.
A Bonus Question
My almost-96-year-old father has very poor vision and hearing. Otherwise he is in remarkably good shape physically and mentally. He is still driving, although he no longer drives at night or on the highway or long distances. I believe he could be a danger to himself and others if he continues to drive. I have spoken with him about my concerns, but his response is that he isn’t ready to stop driving just yet. Soon, but not now.
Given my concerns and potential legal liability should he injure someone else in an accident, am I ethically obligated to report my concerns to the Department of Motor Vehicles, so they can investigate his fitness to be behind the wheel? Alternatively, should I raise my concerns with his doctor and see if they feel an obligation to report him to the D.M.V.? — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
If you truly have reason to believe that your father’s driving, even with the precautions he has taken, is putting people in jeopardy, you should indeed intervene. You ought to have a candid and caring discussion with him about your concerns for his safety and others’, making it plain that you’re on the same side, and that you care about maintaining his self-reliance even if an assessment — and he can start with a self-assessment before getting a professional one — shows that he shouldn’t be behind the wheel. You don’t want to darken your father’s final years, but neither do you want a victim of impaired driving on your conscience. So explore ways of enabling him to take care of his needs and maintain his independence. There are various resources for transportation these days, and your community may have a mobility manager who can provide guidance when it comes to the local transportation networks. Autonomy shouldn’t require an automobile.
Last week’s question was from a reader with a question about animal pregnancy.She wrote: “I have a good friend whose dog is unneutered for health reasons. At the dog park, his dog had intercourse with a dog that was unspayed. … A few weeks later, he learned from the owner of his dog’s sexual partner that the dog was pregnant. The owner insisted that it had been his unneutered dog. She then demanded that my friend share the financial burdens of the pregnancy and the care of the puppies until they were 8 weeks old. My friend offered instead to pay for the total cost of an abortion, but the woman was not comfortable with terminating the pregnancy, claiming that she was religious. My friend told her that he was not going to get involved financially or otherwise if the pregnancy was allowed to continue. … However, he now finds himself having doubts as to whether he acted correctly. Did he do anything morally wrong?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Most American dogs are neutered or spayed, in part to avoid situations like this one. So when people bring their dogs to the dog park, other folks are entitled to assume that these dogs have probably been fixed and that we will take special care not to let them loose if they aren’t. Your friend’s vigilance obviously lapsed; he doesn’t dispute that he should bear some of the costs for what evidently happened. Ending the pregnancy early would, I agree, be a sensible course of action. While there is controversy about the rights and wrongs of abortion in humans, the major arguments against it — which involve the particular sanctity of human life, or the potential of a fetus to acquire personhood — don’t seem to apply to dogs. People tend to think that the quality of life is what’s important when it comes to animals; the avoidance of suffering matters more than the prolongation of existence. … But the decision to terminate the dog’s pregnancy isn’t one your friend gets to make. The owner is the person with the moral responsibility for making such decisions and the legal right to do so.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
I have been to many dog parks over the last 20+ years, and am on the board of a small local nonprofit that coordinates volunteers to care for two nearby dog parks. I have never been to a dog park where females in estrus are allowed to enter. It’s just a bad idea that leads to harassment of the female, and potential fights between the males. I’d be surprised if it was not explicitly stated on the rules at the entrance that no females in heat are allowed. So, while I generally agree with the Ethicist’s response, I would point out that the owner of the female dog either flagrantly disobeyed a sensible rule, or lacks the common sense of a responsible dog owner. — Daniel
I would suggest the owner of the male dog pay the cost of an abortion (whether it occurs or not), and the owner of the female dog is then free to make their own decision. — Ted
I disagree with the Ethicist on this one. When a dog is in heat, it is well known and understood that it attracts male dogs and care must be taken by the female dog owner. Expecting the male dog to show restraint is not reasonable. Allowing a female in heat to run free at the park is inviting the kind of situation that occurred. The female’s owner bears 100% responsibility and should know better. — Ken
One thing the Ethicist didn’t consider is the puppies — which may be for sale upon their birth. If the owner of the male dog has to pay half the vet bills, he should certainly have a right to half the earnings those puppies bring in. — Heather
Dog abortion? Not getting your dog neutered because of “health reasons?” Taking your intact dog to a public dog park? Spay and neuter your pets, please. As a shelter volunteer, I know there are far too many unwanted puppies and dogs in shelters. — Sara