As an OB-Gyn physician I come face-to-face with the ethical edges of medical care perhaps more often than most. Biology has given us an understanding of the beginnings of human life to an amazing degree, and that’s only one of the cutting-edge arenas science has opened up.
Consider some of the abilities we now have that were unthinkable only a few years or decades ago. Here are only a few of the things we can now do:
- Know the genetic makeup of an unborn child, or even an embryo
- Engineer an embryo (and thereby a child) from an egg and sperm totally unrelated to the “intended parents”
- Separate the recreational and procreative aspects of sexual activity
- Decide which pregnancies live or die
- Change some aspect of the genetic makeup of an organ, or a whole human being (almost a reality now)
Only yesterday I had a conversation with a doctor-in-training who is about to go out on her own. She had just been faced with a situation where her ethical philosophy collided with that of another attending physician. She had been asked to ignore the potential consequences of a mother’s medical treatment on her unborn baby in what was a life-threatening situation for the mom. She felt it was wrong to take that position without at least discussing it with the patient and her family.
We had a long discussion about how one might handle these situations, and how that reflects one’s moral view of the value of life, personal responsibility, and much more. One cannot be involved in today’s medical world and not be faced with challenging ethical choices.
Yes, we do know much about biology today. But that understanding gives us certain responsibilities, and I’m not sure we as human beings are completely able to take them all on. Just because we CAN do something does not mean we SHOULD.
We are defined just as much by what we do NOT do as by what we will do. A vegetarian will not eat meat. Chick-Fil-A does not open their stores on Sunday. Aren’t there some things we are wiser NOT to do?
Some doctors take their license to practice as a “Junior God” certificate. Some act as if their knowledge and power gives them the right to make life-and-death decisions for others, and to act on those decisions. The best doctors don’t take themselves too seriously, but it’s not an easy attitude for some to maintain.
Here are some principles I do take seriously, and use when faced with challenging ethical decisions:
- I don’t know everything! Other professionals and patients themselves know things I don’t, and may value things differently than I do. More than that, there’s more that medical science does NOT know than it does know. Ultimately only One knows everything, and I’m not Him! This stance of humility is absolutely vital when facing difficult ethical decisions.
- Human life is valuable. Every life! No matter how young or old, rich or poor, normal or “abnormal,” and without regard to whether that human being has, can, or will make any measurable contribution to others. Choosing who lives and who does not live (including the unborn, the old, the ill, etc.) is playing God, and no human being is qualified to fill that role.
- Life is not fair. A couple does not automatically deserve a baby just because they want one. A person is not guaranteed a “cure” or treatment just because they have a need. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Only in heaven will everything be “fair!”
- Each person is responsible. Some human beings have less responsibility than others because of limitations beyond their control, but in general I am not responsible for removing someone from the consequences of their personal decisions. (This addresses such areas as sexuality, smoking, diet, and much more.) Just because something is hard to do (i.e. quit smoking, or keep sexually faithful to one’s spouse) does not mean one is not responsible to do it.
We may know the DNA code, but we still cannot use that code to create life. That God reserves for Himself. We should never take ourselves too seriously!
Your turn: What ethical challenges do you face in your life context? What do you base your ethical decisions on? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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