My favorite books about the most challenging ethical dilemmas in modern medicine

Why am I passionate about this?

As a physician and attorney, I’ve always been fascinated by the nexus where my two professions meet.   During the course of my career, I have been asked to advise colleagues on topics as far-reaching as whether a death row inmate should receive an organ transplant to how to offer psychotherapy ethically to a conjoined twin. Although questions like these do not arise every day, even the everyday questions in my field – on such topics as confidentiality, boundaries, and informed consent – never grow old.


I wrote...

Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

By Jacob M. Appel,

Book cover of Who Says You're Dead? Medical & Ethical Dilemmas for the Curious & Concerned

What is my book about?

Drawing upon the author’s decades teaching medical ethics and his work as a practicing physician, this book of challenging ethical dilemmas asks readers, What would you do?

A daughter gets tested to see if she’s a match to donate a kidney to her father. The test reveals that she isn’t the man’s biological daughter. Should the doctor tell them? A deaf couple prefers a deaf baby. Should they be allowed to use medical technology to ensure they have a child who can’t hear? Who should get custody of an embryo created through IVF when a couple divorces? Or, when you or a loved one is on life support, Who says you’re dead? In short, engaging scenarios, Dr. Appel takes on hot-button issues in medical ethics.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

Jacob M. Appel Why did I love this book?

Medical Apartheid is the one book that I urge all of my medical students to read. In a compelling narrative laced with shocking details, Washington reveals the way various forms of racial segregation and bias have shaped the American medical system – from the ghastly 19th century experiments of surgeon J. Marion Sims to the systemic exploitation of the government’s MK-ULTRA program in the 1950s to ongoing discrimination today.  

By Harriet A. Washington,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Medical Apartheid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD WINNER • The first full history of Black America’s shocking mistreatment as unwilling and unwitting experimental subjects at the hands of the medical establishment. No one concerned with issues of public health and racial justice can afford not to read this masterful book.

"[Washington] has unearthed a shocking amount of information and shaped it into a riveting, carefully documented book." —New York Times

From the era of slavery to the present day, starting with the earliest encounters between Black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, Medical Apartheid details the ways…


Book cover of Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America

Jacob M. Appel Why did I love this book?

By far the best survey of medical ethics on the market today, Moreno and Gutmann bring to life the most challenging issues in bioethics with both rigor and eloquence. This is the ideal book for a newcomer to the subject who wants to learn how current ethical principles evolved and how they are applied in a range of areas from organ donation to end-of-life decision-making.

By Amy Gutmann, Jonathan D. Moreno,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eye-opening look at the inevitable moral choices that come along with tremendous medical progress, Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die is a primer for all Americans to talk more honestly about health care. Beginning in the 1950s when doctors still paid house calls but regularly withheld the truth from their patients, Amy Gutmann and Jonathan D. Moreno explore an unprecedented revolution in health care and explain the problem with Americans wanting everything that medical science has to offer without debating its merits and its limits. The result: Americans today pay far more for health…


Book cover of Rights Come to Mind

Jacob M. Appel Why did I love this book?

Fins combines personal narratives of patients he has encountered who have suffered severe neurological injuries with data from the field of neurology to explore the complex question of what it means to be in a persistent vegetative state—as well as one’s prognosis for recovery. A deeply compassionate volume that will make readers question what they believe about comas, death, and the gray area in between. 

By Joseph J. Fins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rights Come to Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Through the sobering story of Maggie Worthen and her mother, Nancy, this book tells of one family's struggle with severe brain injury and how developments in neuroscience call for a reconsideration of what society owes patients at the edge of consciousness. Drawing upon over fifty in-depth family interviews, the history of severe brain injury from Quinlan to Schiavo, and his participation in landmark clinical trials, such as the first use of deep brain stimulation in the minimally conscious state, Joseph J. Fins captures the paradox of medical and societal neglect even as advances in neuroscience suggest new ways to mend…


Book cover of You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor's Stories of Life, Death, and in Between

Jacob M. Appel Why did I love this book?

Lamas, an ICU physician in Boston and New York Times guest columnist, has a distinctive gift for rendering the stories of her patients in three dimensions. Lamas is the Oliver Sachs of the ICU, exploring the ethical and emotional challenges of critical illness with eloquence and insight. By focusing on the personal elements of critical care, rather than the technological ones, she renders the complex experience of ICU patients vivid and indelible.   

By Daniela Lamas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked You Can Stop Humming Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Gripping, soaring, inspiring . . . Read it' - Atul Gawande, author of the international bestseller Being Mortal

'You Can Stop Humming Now is essential reading on what it means to be human in an age of medical technology. I couldn't put it down' - Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body

'In turns anguishing, gripping, and hopeful, You Can Stop Humming Now is a must-read for anyone contemplating what medicine holds in store for us.' - Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, author of What Patients Say, What Doctors Feel

Modern medicine is a world that glimmers with new…


Book cover of Law and Bioethics: An Introduction

Jacob M. Appel Why did I love this book?

The defining text of the topic of law and medicine, written by one of the nation’s premier bioethicists, Menikoff’s compendium of challenging cases and analyses is as relevant today as it was when first published two decades ago. Serious students of the subject matter will appreciate both the nuance and thoroughness of this short yet comprehensive volume.

By Jerry Menikoff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Law and Bioethics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

While the American legal system has played an important role in shaping the field of bioethics, "Law and Bioethics" is the first book on the subject designed to be accessible to readers with little or no legal background. Detailing how the legal analysis of an issue in bioethics often differs from the "ethical" analysis, the book covers such topics as abortion, surrogacy, cloning, informed consent, malpractice, refusal of care, and organ transplantation. Structured like a legal casebook, "Law and Bioethics" includes the text of almost all the landmark cases that have shaped bioethics. Jerry Menikoff offers commentary on each of…


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Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

Book cover of Rewriting Illness

Elizabeth Benedict

New book alert!

What is my book about?

What happens when a novelist with a “razor-sharp wit” (Newsday), a “singular sensibility” (Huff Post), and a lifetime of fear about getting sick finds a lump where no lump should be? Months of medical mishaps, coded language, and Doctors who don't get it.

With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling artistry of an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Benedict recollects her cancer diagnosis after discovering multiplying lumps in her armpit. In compact, explosive chapters, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity, she chronicles her illness from muddled diagnosis to “natural remedies,” to debilitating treatments, as she gathers sustenance from family, an assortment of urbane friends, and a fearless “cancer guru.”

Rewriting Illness is suffused with suspense, secrets, and the unexpected solace of silence.

Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

What is this book about?

By turns somber and funny but above all provocative, Elizabeth Benedict's Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own is a most unconventional memoir. With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling skills of a seasoned novelist, she brings to life her cancer diagnosis and committed hypochondria. As she discovers multiplying lumps in her armpit, she describes her initial terror, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity as she indulges in "natural remedies," among them chanting Tibetan mantras, drinking shots of wheat grass, and finding medicinal properties in chocolate babka. She tracks the progression of her illness from muddled diagnosis to debilitating treatment…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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