This five-line poem poses a direct question of distributive justice to a mother faced with scarce resources. "Indian Poem" asks the mother to decide how she will divide what little she has among her children. She must choose between her strong son who has no immediate need, her weak son who is bound to die soon , and her daughter, "who is a girl anyway." The poem presents an imperative choice, but acknowledges that in choosing, the mother will also suffer along with her children.


The poem provides an accessible allegory for health care professionals who must decide questions of rationing on a daily basis. The reader can fill in the blank of what is under consideration: one's time, one's professional skill, one's empathy, a life-saving medicine or technology. The poem also raises questions about the basis for our judgments about who gets whatever it is that is in scarce supply.

Readers can reflect on how one's cultural baggage influences seemingly objective criteria for selection. In addition, the poem illustrates a marriage of "feminist" and "traditional" modes of ethical reasoning, reminding the reader that one's heart will be, and should be, involved in decisions of distributive justice, no matter how abstract the process of allocation may seem at the time.


The poem is printed in the Lancet article, "Legitimate Double-Think," by Maurice King and Charles Elliott, on page 669.

Primary Source

Lancet 341/8846 [March13]: 669-672 (1993)