The Ethics Of Fundraising For Your Cancer-Stricken Kid

The Ethicist got an infuriating question this past weekend from an anonymous letter writer. (Is there any other kind?) The LW is peeved that someone they know, someone who seems to have money, is nonetheless passing the hat to get help to pay for his child’s cancer treatments. Here’s the link; it’s the third question of three.

We have friends who are fairly well off. The husband is an entrepreneur and likes to talk about how much money he makes. Sadly, their son was just found to have a treatable cancer. Despite having insurance and an annual out-­of­pocket cap that can’t be more than $13,000, they have started an online fund-­raising page and are having multiple fund-­raising events to pay their son’s medical expenses. Within a few short weeks, they have raised nearly $30,000.

Is asking people for money to pay for your or your child’s medical care ethical if (a) you could pay for it with little sacrifice and (b) you may raise more money than the care costs you? Name Withheld

Maybe I’m a little oversensitive these days, especially when it comes to such topics as medical bills and parenthood. But to my mind, for merely asking this question, the Letter Writer should be left in a small room for thirty days with nothing to eat but Spam and Marmite and nothing to do except watch his favorite sports team lose game after game on TV.


#1) You never know someone else’s financial situation. You may think you do. You don’t. Other people are inscrutable creatures: they brag, they exaggerate, they pay good money they may or may not have to do things like run marathons and hike endless trails that could, in slightly tweaked circumstances, qualify as cruel and unusual punishments. Hell is other people’s spending, right? It never makes sense to us.

Simply because a person is an “entrepreneur” and struts around like he’s something doesn’t mean that, secretly, he’s not desperate and terrified and running on nothing but adrenaline and ambition. Factor in a sick child and a broken health care system, and it doesn’t matter how “fairly well off” anyone appears to be. He could be three bills from bankruptcy, as so many Americans are.

#2) Asking other people for help is never wrong. If you, LW, think the parent in question ought to turn inward and opt for a “little sacrifice” instead of giving other people the opportunity to pitch in, that’s fine! You don’t have to open your wallet. But don’t then open your mouth.

Sure, it can be hard to say “no.” All the more when someone makes an earnest plea on behalf of his cancer-stricken child. But hey, what’s the point of having guns if you don’t stick to them? It’s not the petitioner’s job to say “no” in advance on your behalf so that you don’t have to potentially feel awkward. It’s your own job to take care of your own feelings.

#3) Most people don’t ask for help unless they really, really need it. Is it so hard to give a freaked out parent the benefit of the doubt?

If I were friends with John Jacob Astor and he asked me for $25 to put towards the hospital bills of his sick kid, I might make a soft snorting noise to myself. I might say, “Wow, that takes some chutzpah, considering how many other poorer children around the world need help.” I might delete the fundraising email. Or I might pass along $25, figuring that there’s something to the situation beyond what I can perceive and $25 might mean a lot more to Mr. Astor right now than it does to me.

Either way I wouldn’t write to the goddamned Gray Lady about it.

If indeed the parent in question is using his kid’s illness to get rich, then sure, gross. Unethical. Bad f-ing karma. What are the odds of that, though? Occam’s Razor: if the guy is asking people for money, it’s because he needs money. Give it to him or don’t give it to him, it’s totally your choice. But try to be a human being, not a suspicious, passive-aggressive, judge-y frenemy. It’s a better bet in the long run.

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