February 13, 2014 | Posted By Jane Jankowski, LMSW, MS

During a long cold drive home a couple weeks ago, there was a broadcast on NPR about efforts to help promote the survival of the rare northern spotted owl. The controversy has not centered on the importance of saving the spotted owl, but on whether or not it is ethically acceptable to hunt the barred owl which has moved into territory thereby dangerously threatening the spotted owl population. The barred owl is also an “at risk” species, but has been thriving in the northwestern forests where the spotted owls had fed, bred, and nested.  The government faced a “Sophie’s choice” (Shogran 2014, NPR),  and reluctantly accepted the morally disturbing decision to kill 3600 barred owls in order to try to help the spotted owl maintain a sustainable population.  This distressing environmental dilemma serves as a unique analogy for responsible business decisions related to healthcare. We can turn to business ethics here, which offers the “precautionary principle” (Weber 2001, 134) whereby avoiding harm and meeting the needs of a community requires that if any deleterious action is going to be taken, the proponents of the activity must establish that safety is the intent and there is no other way to accomplish the task than to inflict some degree of harm. Though the cause of reduced numbers of spotted owls and the migration of barred owls is related to man’s stripping timber from the natural habitats of each, the solution needs to balance the competing interests in the existing ecosystem. Similarly, people seeking healthcare in the US are not to blame for the economic woes of our system but it seems compromises from everyone will be needed in order to assure a basic level of service for all.

When it comes to environmental concerns, “it is safety, rather than harm, that should necessitate demonstration” (Steingraber as cited in Weber, 134) and that the least dangerous alternative is what ought to be established and pursued. This does not mean that some harm will not exist. In the case of the endangered spotted owl, it is the safety of this species which is most gravely at risk. Because the habitat for the threatening barred owl cannot be restored, the “least toxic alternative” is to lower the numbers of barred owls. Losing the spotted owl is seen as a greater harm than hunting the barred owl. In the US, we have citizens who are unable to secure access to basic preventive healthcare. While the answer is not to cull the herd of citizens who do have access to preventive care, some sacrifices will likely be needed in the form of increased cost, longer wait times, and changes to the existing health insurance landscape. 

Like the spotted owl and the barred owl, the matter of reforming the US healthcare delivery systems presses us to consider if it is ethically acceptable to prioritize the survival of the marginalized at the expense of the thriving. Healthcare reform legislation has been both welcomed and criticized for similar reasons. Employer based plans may often become more costly for those with such insurance, as those without any prior access to health insurance have a chance to enroll in a plan of some kind. If we consider the population of people with insurance coverage of any kind (private or public) as the thriving, and those without coverage as the marginalized, it becomes clear that some sacrifice is going to be needed in order to accommodate the scores of people who lack coverage for medical care. Like the owls, the environment has changed and some sacrifice is needed to achieve the protection of the vulnerable. It is not perfect, but in order to provide an opportunity for all to thrive, it is sometimes necessary to accommodate the harm to some.


Shogran, E. (January 16, 2014). “To save threatened owl: another species is shot.”  http://www.npr.org/2014/01/15/262735123/to-save-threatened-owl-another-species-is-shot (downloaded January 17, 2014)


Weber, L. (2001). Business ethics in healthcare: beyond compliance. Indiana University Press; Bloomington, IN.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.