Beyond the Boundary Between Science and Values: Re-Evaluating the Moral Dimension of the Nurse's Role in Cot Death Prevention
van Rens-Leenaarts, Engeline
Nursing Ethics 2002 March; 9(2): 137-154
This article combines a philosophical critique of the idea that public health nurses are primary technicians who neutrally hand over scientifically established facts on risks to the public and an empirical analysis of the actual work of public health nurses. It is argued that the relationship between facts and values in public health is complex and that, despite the introduction of several scientifically-based standards and guidelines, public health nurses are not technicians. They do moral work and experience ethical dilemmas. To get a grip on the specific character of this moral work, we distance ourselves from the idea that there are ethical dilemmas in public health nursing for which we can provide general ethical rules and principles. Instead we suggest a contextual ethical approach, in which several different kinds of consideration may be important. To illustrate this, we analysed 15 in-depth interviews with nurses involved in the prevention of cot deaths in the Netherlands. It is shown that these nurses do not neutrally pass on the epidemiological facts on the risks of prone sleeping, warm bed- clothes and passive smoking, but they are the moral architects of this preventive practice. It is also shown that this moral work and the ethical dilemmas they experience cannot be characterized in terms of general ethical rules and principles. It becomes clear that the moral work of nurses differs according to the three main risks at stake: the balance between virtue, risk taking and responsibility depends on the specific context.
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