Margaret P. Battin, PhD

Margaret P. Battin, PhD

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Utah

Margaret “Peggy” Battin, PhD, MFA, is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Internal Medicine, Program in Medical Ethics and Humanities, at the University of Utah. Professor Battin’s areas of expertise include medical aid in dying, suicide, end-of-life decision making and contraception.

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On Day 1 of the interview, Prof. Battin discusses her childhood in Washington, DC, including her year in India with her family for her father’s job and her Quaker upbringing. Prof. Battin tells the story of her mother dying of cancer when Prof. Battin was 21 years old, naming that as a profound introduction to death and dying. This loss inspires Prof. Battin’s later research on end-of-life issues, the history of suicide spanning back to pre-Socratic thinkers, and physician aid in dying. She describes her choice to go to Bryn Mawr College for undergraduate education and studying philosophy there. She shares about research she conducted in the Netherlands, where medical aid in dying is legal.

Prof. Battin posits that bioethics has begun to assume the role that religion used to have in dictating moral thinking and offers appreciation for how bioethics clarifies difficult questions. Prof. Battin describes her interest in using “thought experiments” as a device for thinking through a problem and speaks about a current book project that will be a compilation of different thought experiments. She also shares a description of one of her manuscripts in progress about reproductive rights and contraception, and reflects on its relevance after the US Supreme Court’s 2022 abortion decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Prof. Battin’s coined-phrase “least worst death” is used often during the interview; she insists that it’s not about having a “good” death, but about having as much choice as possible.

On Day 2 of the interview, Prof. Battin narrates her path to University of California, Irvine as a student studying for both a philosophy PhD and an MFA in fiction writing, and the experience of this combined course of study. Prof. Battin explains how the German language has four words for different types of self-death while the English language has only one term for suicide. Prof. Battin tells the story of her husband Brooke’s cycling accident and his experience of quadriplegia, which necessitated 24/7 at-home care. Prof. Battin reflects on the difficulty and necessity of reconciling her end-of-life considerations as a philosopher with her academic understandings of consent and autonomy through the real life experience of supporting a person she loves. She describes the years that Brooke spent after the accident as a “joint project.”

Prof. Battin also speaks about the concept of “diagnostic odysseys,” as originally described by bioethics scholar Ruth Macklin. She notes a core part of her teaching approach: guiding her students to think first and read the literature second, so their thought process is not shaped by the literature. Prof. Battin also speaks to how poorly our society handles Alzheimer’s disease, a long-term condition that often has a very difficult end, and shares a thought experiment about an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

This interview may be of interest to those seeking to learn more about: the field of bioethics and the early history of bioethics in the US; end-of-life care and physician aid in dying, and conversations around the legality of these issues; comparative practices related to aid in dying in the US and internationally; the history and ethics of suicide; personal experience with long-term caregiving, death, and dying; personal medical experiences of bioethicists; philosophy; Utah authors; experiences of alumni from Sidwell Friends School and Bryn Mawr College; language/linguistic practices; and regional histories of bioethics (Southwest).

You can find full audio, transcript, and other materials in the Moral Histories Archive.

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