Interpersonal Communication Ethics in My Sister’s Keeper

Cacciatore’s Presentation of Interpersonal Communication Ethics in My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper Video Clip


Stacy’s Script for Interpersonal Communication Ethics – My Sister’s Keeper

What if you were brought into this world for the sole purpose to give life to someone else?


What if someone you loved deeply asked you to let them die?



My name is Stacy Cacciatore and I’m with Queens University. Today I’m going to focus on the interpersonal communication ethics implications in My Sister’s Keeper.


“Sometimes love means letting go when you want to hold on tighter.” ―Melissa Marr

The movie My Sister’s Keeper brings up many ethical issues that can be explored deeply.

My Sister’s Keeper originated from a novel by Jodi Picoult. I was immediately drawn in by the complex web of ethical dilemmas the characters faced. Apparently many others were as well, as it was made into a movie in 2009.

To set the stage, Kate was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of two. Her only hope was a bone marrow transplant, but neither her parents nor her older brother were a match. At the recommendation of their oncologist, Kate’s parents conceive a genetically engineered child, Anna, for the sole purpose of helping keep Kate alive. Over the years Anna has experienced almost as many medical procedures as her sick sister, donating parts of her self piece by piece to save Kate, until she’s asked to donate a kidney at the age of 13, and that’s enough. Kate hires a laywer to file for medical emancipation so she doesn’t have to donate a kidney, but the twist, which the reader/viewer isn’t privy to until the end, is that Kate asks Anna to let her die and not donate her kidney.

This scene highlights the heart of the interpersonal communication ethics issue that I will explore.

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Interpersonal communication ethics says, “Do given persons work to honor a relationship whatever the consequences?”

In My Sister’s Keeper, Anna works to honor her relationship to her sister no matter what the consequences. In this movie, the consequences were literally life or death. Anna had to choose…does she do what she thinks is “right” and donate her kidney? Does she do what her sister wants and file for medical emancipation? Or does she do what’s right for the relationship? And what is that?


To understand interpersonal communication ethics, one must first understand interpersonal communication.



Three assumptions for Interpersonal Communication

  • Relationship is first and foremost
  • The relationship between two people is the top priority, not a political agenda
  • Multiple ways to study


There is no better example of a relationship that takes the center stage, without an alternative agenda, than that between sisters.


In that relationship, one should understand the responsibility to one another. This can be explored through understanding distance in interpersonal communications.


Let it Go – Soundtrack



  • Distance helps one see more clearly
  • Distance nourishes relationships
  • Distance is different from closeness


In My Sister’s Keeper, we see distance played out in the relationships.


Kate and her mother do not have enough distance in their relationship. Arnett, Fritz and Bell say that it’s only with distance that we can see clearer. Kate’s mom has not allowed enough distance between herself and Kate, which blurs her view of Kate’s wish.


Since Kate was two her mother has worked to protect her and keep her alive. She built an entire life around protecting Kate. She didn’t have enough distance to realize that Kate didn’t want to suffer any longer.


What Arnett, Fritz and Bell said that resonated with met the most was that the interpersonal relationship calls for us to do what is necessary, not what we want for ourselves or the Other.

This responsibility played out perfectly in My Sister’s Keeper.

Interpersonal Responsibility


  • Not about doing what’s right
  • The good is the relationship
  • It’s not you….It’s not me


“Interpersonal communication ethics rest not in our hopes or wishes, or those of another, but in something that we invite and can never create alone, a relationship that calls us to responsibility,” (Arnett, Harden Fritz, and Bell, 2009, p. 126)[1].

[1]Arnett, B.C., Harden Fritz, J.M.& Bell, L.M. (2009). Communication ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.



In My Sister’s Keeper, I asked myself several questions regarding interpersonal communication ethics:


Did Anna value the relationship with her sister, Kate, more than doing what is “right”?


Did Anna value what the “Other” wanted more than the relationship?


If interpersonal communication ethics is about the relationship, not about you want or what the “Other” wants, then Anna did not honor that. She placed a higher value on doing what her sister wanted than the relationship. If she valued the relationship more, then she would have not honored her sister’s wishes.


When exploring the mother’s relationship with Kate, who did not want Kate to die, the mother placed a higher value on what she wanted, than the “other”.


The mother didn’t care what Kate wanted, or what Anna wanted, what she wanted was her daughter.


So what is the interpersonal relationship balance? If doing what the “other” wants doesn’t work and doing what you want doesn’t work, then what would be the “right” answer in this situation?

It’s not about “right” or “wrong”, it’s about valuing the relationship.


In one scene where Anna and Kate are discussing Kate’s wishes for Anna to request medical emancipation and to let her go…Anna asks if Kate will wait for her in the afterlife.


To me, this demonstrates that Anna is acting with interpersonal ethical responsibility, because it then doesn’t become about what her sister wants ,or what she wants, but about the relationship that they cherish, both in this life and beyond.


Dialogic Ethic

  • Listen without demand
  • Attentiveness

oOn self

oOn other

oOn historical moment in time

  • Negotiation

o“I” can’t control and “we” must negotiate.

  • Knowledge is learning
  • “I” follows conscience



What’s dialogic ethic? It’s an eloquent way of saying, the way that a conversation between two individuals plays an ethical role in their relationship.



In My Sister’s Keeper, we see the dialogic ethic among the interpersonal communication.


The first concept of dialogic ethic is to listen without demand. Interpersonal communication ethic pays close attention to demand.


In the scene in which the sister’s are laying on the blanket outside, discussing Kate’s demand for Anna to request medical emancipation, it is clear that there is demand in the interpersonal relationships. There is both demand from Kate to Anna, to not donate a kidney. There is demand from Anna to her mother to release her from the commitment to donate her kidney. There is demand from the mother to Kate to donate the kidney. All of the relationships have a form of demand upon each other.


However, I noticed in the “Feels Like Home” scene of the movie, in which Kate is allowed her dying wish, which is to visit the ocean, it is the one moment in which all of the characters are the happiest. And in that moment, not demand is being placed from anyone on the relationship.


They are simply living in the moment, enjoying the view of the crashing waves, spending time with each other and releasing all expectations and demands.

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The attentiveness on the self, other and moment in time also play a role. The ground of Other is the ethical ground that shapes the communicative lives together. And over time this relationship can change. In My Sister’s Keeper, the communicative lives change over time. No relationship is static. When Anna was young, she had no communicative voice to engage in a dialogue with her mother about donating her bone marrow or blood. Kate had no dialogic voice to voice her wishes about her cancer treatment. Over time their relationship shifted and changes, as sisters and as daughters.


This ties right into the third concept, which is negotiation. A relationship must be negotiated, and have consistency that “I” can’t control and “we” must negotiate. In My Sister’s Keeper, there was negotiation between the mother and daughter because the mother was used to being the “I” in control. When her daughter’s grew older and began to voice their viewpoint, she had to adjust and see that “we” must negotiate together.


The sisters also negotiated, in the scene in which the sister’s sat on the blanket together and Kate expressed her wishes, she helped negotiate a solution that worked for both of them.



Knowledge is learning – we must learn from self-reflection and learn from the Other. The relationship is constantly change and one must learn and adapt.


The final pillar of dialogic ethic is the connection of “I”, one’s own interpersonal responsibility, to the relationship.


This is seen in My Sister’s Keeper, as the mother doesn’t see that her daughter wants to release and be free from her pain. However, through self-reflection, time and learning from her relationships, she comes to link her responsibility to the relationship with her to finally let her daughter go.



  • Guiding key in relationship is our responsibility to the other – not in our own, or their, hopes and wishes
  • Interpersonal communication ethics calls for us to what’s necessary, not what we want


The movie does not have a happy ending. Kate doesn’t end up miraculously recovering from cancer. Anna did obtain medical emancipation, which probably tore her interpersonal relationship with her parents apart. And her parents marriage is rocky from years of neglect as the mother tended to her sick daughter.


Just as in real life, things aren’t always tied up with a pretty bow, we see this in My Sister’s Keeper.


However, what we also see is growth and learning among all of the characters


2 thoughts on “Interpersonal Communication Ethics in My Sister’s Keeper

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