The God Committee

The God Committee

When hospitals are overwhelmed, who decides who lives and who dies?

The original “God Committee” had seven members: a surgeon, a minister, a banker, a labor leader, a housewife, a government worker, and a lawyer. They convened in the summer of 1961 in Seattle because a professor of medicine at the University of Washington had invented a new method of dialysis that could indefinitely filter the blood of people whose kidneys were failing. His device, hailed as the first artificial human organ, resided in an unobtrusive annex of Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, and it seemed like a true medical miracle. Suddenly people with less than a month to live could be restored to health, provided they could be dialyzed regularly. But at the time, roughly 100,000 Americans were dying of end-stage kidney disease. There were hundreds, possibly thousands, of viable candidates. The program could take only 10. Who should get the lifesaving care?

The committee set out to make this choice “with no moral or ethical guidelines save their own individual consciences,” as Life magazine reported. The physicians briefing the group had already narrowed the field by eliminating people older than 45 (because they were more likely to develop complications that would hinder their recovery) and children (on the theory that they weren’t mature enough to handle two 12-hour dialysis sessions a week, and were possibly vulnerable to unpredictable side effects). Beyond that, the committee was on its own.