Chapter 6: Rights, Truth and Consent

Section 4. Readings: Berkich on Tarasoff

Outline by  Don Berkich,  University of Texas, Corpus Christi (by permission)

One can imagine situations where there is a great deal of pressure on the medical professional to ignore confidentiality. For example, suppose you were a psychologist, and one of your clients confessed that they intended to murder their spouse. Should you inform the police? The spouse?

A similar case occurred in California in the 1970's. Prosenjit Poddar killed Tatiana Tarasoff after confiding in his therapist that he intended to kill her. The question the California Supreme Court took up was whether the therapist had a duty to warn.

The arguments for a duty to warn are obvious. So obvious, in fact, that medical professionals--psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors, in particular--are now mandated reporters because of the decision in the Tarasoff case. What this means is that if you go to a therapist and express an intention to harm yourself or others, the therapist is required to break confidentiality and report your intentions to the appropriate authorities.

Less obvious are the arguments, however, against a duty to warn, although the dissenting opinion in the case gives a superb utilitarian argument against a duty to warn. As the dissenting opinion points out, those who most need help will be less likely to seek it, and the security and trust necessary for a successful therapeutic relationship will be lost.

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Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.

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