Anti-Religious Bias in Medical Ethics

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English: Medicine

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A few of my medical ethics students (not by any means the majority) object to my including such a large component of religious ethics in my teaching. Such an attitude is not surprising–it is another instance of religion’s increasing exclusion from public life and debate (Fr. Richard John Neuhaus‘ “naked public square,” but it is nevertheless disturbing. The founders of the great Hippocratic tradition of medicine (and ethics) were Pythagoreans, and their thought cannot be understood apart from Pythagorean mysticism. Roman Catholic scholars were producing texts in medical ethics as early as the seventeenth century, and taught medical ethics as a university course long before the contemporary bioethics revolution began in 1966. Roman Catholic concepts such as the principle of double effect and the ordinary-extraordinary care distinction have become a part of the ethical vocabulary in medicine.

In addition, Protestant scholars, such as Paul Ramsey and James Gustafson, have made important contributions to medical ethics. Jewish scholars, such as Hans Jonas and Leon Kass, have also contributed to the field, with Professor Kass serving as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. Muslim scholars are beginning to be published in both mainstream medical and in medical ethics journals. At a practical level, understanding diverse religions is important for any health care provider.

The terms of the debates over key bioethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia cannot be adequately understood without understanding the religious arguments involved in these debates. I am not denying the possibility of a consistent secular ethics; I am saying that, as a matter of fact, de-emphasizing the religious aspect of medical ethics is irresponsible, period, and would be more irresponsible for me from a scholarly/teaching point of view.

What is more disturbing than students’ attitudes, which may be as much due to lack of exposure to alternative views (especially for those students who are “rabidly secular”), is the increasing exclusion of religious points of view from medical ethical debates. This exclusion is not absolute; journals such as the Hastings Center Report occasionally publish articles from a religious perspective, as do some other journals in medical ethics, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The false Enlightenment assumption that religion is only a private, subjective matter is part of the problem. Such a view reveals utter ignorance of the function of religion in personal behavior and in society. As one of my teachers at UGA once said, “I would never be such a damned fool as to claim that religion is only a private matter.” He was a liberal Protestant and not a raging Fundamentalist, but he understood the function of religion to be inherently social. He also understood that religions make claims about reality, and such claims can be broadly tested against human experience in general, although there will always be an element of faith and of mystery in religion.

Increasingly, I find a small group of students who could be called “misotheists”–they hate God or at least the notion that any Creator exists. Since these are mostly science students, I would guess they were encouraged to believe such things by some of their science teachers, as well as by the strict methodological atheism of modern and contemporary science. Far too many science teachers make sweeping metaphysical claims regarding religion being a superstition and claim that such a view is “scientific.” Of course this is really the philosophy of “scientism,” the view that science can explain all reality and that any reality claims that go beyond a mythical “scientific method” are, by their very nature, not part of reality. Such a view needs to be justified by argumentation, but neither the scientists who accept scientism nor students are willing to present arguments–their hostility to religion is palpable. Other students (and atheists and agnostics in general) are angry ex-religious people who have rebelled against, perhaps, a harsh religious background (or maybe they just want to get laid and don’t want any religion to get in their way). Since misotheism is, like scientism, an emotionally-based position, there is no rational way to get most people who hold such views to think them through.

I admit I’m frustrated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be a religious believer who teaches in a college or university. They follow the logic of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, adopting not only its positive side (toleration for different points of view) but also its negative side (the total secularization of the academy). Even in religious schools, the logic of the Enlightenment leads many faculty be be atheists or agnostics and to minimize the role of religion in public life. It is sad that this attitude has spread to future health care providers.

In Vitro Fertilization and Ethics

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8-cell embryo for transfer 3 days after fertil...

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The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded to British physiologist Robert Geoffrey Edwards, who helped develop the method of in vitro fertilization (IVF) through which the first “test tube baby,” Louise Brown, was born in July 25, 1978. Aside from issues that arose from later applications of IVF, such as embryonic stem cell research, I believe that IVF, as it is usually practiced, is morally wrong. Normally during IVF, several fertilized eggs are produced. Some are set aside and frozen, and if they are not used due a failure of the first attempt at implantation, they usually are destroyed. If human personhood begins, as I believe it does, at the point of conception, of the new genetic code that forms when sperm and egg join to form a new person, then the current practice of IVF results in the murder of human persons. Now a woman may request that that no more than one fertilized egg should be produced. This costs a great deal more money, but it would avoid the major ethical problem with IVF. But this is not the method used in the vast majority of cases.

America, and to a large extent Western Europe, are obsessed with “rights.” So a woman who is infertile is said to have a “right” to bear a child no matter what the moral costs might be. If that means that frozen embryos are destroyed, so be it–the woman has fulfilled her wish to bear a child. Now people who defend IVF obviously do not believe that the embryo is a human person. The difficulty is, at what point does one deny human personhood, once the unique genetic code in the fertilized egg is formed, that is not arbitrary? Viability varies with technology. There is a continuity of human development from conception to death that makes it clear that the same organism is living from conception to death. Conceptions of personhood based on mental capacity would deny personhood to senile old people or to the severely mentally retarded. The safest course is to hold that human personhood is present as long as a human organism with a unique identity is present, and this is the case with a fertilized egg, whose unique individuality is guaranteed by its unique genetic code that is neither the genetic code of the sperm nor of the egg. Thus a woman does not have a right to bear a child at the cost of murdering other human persons.

Scientists often mean well, but there is a certain arrogance in their approach to nature. The ethicist Leon Kass has noted that contemporary technology has invaded natural human bonds such as marriage, childbirth, and the family, holding that such processes can be manipulated at will. While there may be some situations in which this is justified, it should not be at the cost of human lives.