Modern Medicine and Human Dignity

August 27, 2021 Updated: August 31, 2021

Commentary

Is modern medicine stripping us of our humanity? Without its amazing technical advances, some of us would not be alive to discuss the question. But in its materialist, spiritually impoverished understanding of the human being, as ethicist Charles Camosy puts it in his new book, “Losing Our Dignity,” medicine is at risk of reducing itself to a kind of organic plumbing and carpentry.

Modern secularism at the same time reduces us as persons to our autonomy and capacity to make choices. It thereby excludes whole classes of human beings who lack the will, power, or cognitive ability to make conscious choices.

Do physicians and health systems with this bias regard “unwanted” prenatal children, or people with severe brain damage or Down syndrome, neurodegenerative disease, or late-stage dementia, as less than human and unworthy of their ministrations?

Are we losing our dignity as secularized medicine undermines our fundamental human equality?

Secularizing Medicine

“For most of human history,” Camosy says, “the practice of healing and the practice of religious faith were closely connected. Often the healer and the religious figure were the same person.”

In recent years, bioethicists who are hostile to religion have reoriented medicine. They aim to exclude ultimate considerations, especially religious ones, about the meaning and nature of human life and death from the practice of medicine.

The result has been a growing tendency to separate the concept of a human being, a fellow member of our species, from that of a person who has the capacity to choose. All persons are human beings in this view, but not all human beings are persons.

In contrast, we are, so Jews and Christians have believed for millennia, fundamentally equal as persons made in the image of God. For that reason, we share inherent dignity and worth regardless of age, stage of development, capacities, state of health, dependency, cognitive ability, or autonomy.

Some 2,500 years ago, even before the emergence and spread of Christianity throughout the West, the Oath of Hippocrates committed physicians first and foremost to the good of patients. Those who took the oath committed themselves to an ethic of curing and not killing. They undertook first to do no harm. Specifically, they bound themselves not to commit or collude in abortions or euthanasia, voluntary or involuntary, killing or suicide.

In 1948, the World Medical Association, shaken by the horrific behavior of physicians in Nazi medical experimentation, issued a 1948 ethical code, the Declaration of Geneva, and a physician’s pledge. The pledge committed those who took it to “maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception, even under threat.” Later, the phrase “from its beginning” replaced the specific and unambiguous phrase “from the time of conception,” and the whole clause disappeared in 2005.

The Hippocratic Oath was also amended over the course of the 20th century to remove prohibitions on killing, assisted killing, and abortion. The oath, as taken today by graduating medical students, has been transformed from its original focus on protecting patients to one about physicians and their professional rights and responsibilities.

It’s symptomatic that the Roe v. Wade ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, written by Justice Harry A. Blackmun, is concerned primarily not with the claims or rights of women to control “their own” bodies—the body of the prenatal child they were carrying no longer counted as a human person. The word fetus, the Latin word for offspring, served in this context to medicalize and dehumanize the child in the womb when its life was in question. Such language was never used in terms of a “fetus kicking” in the womb or “fetus showers” for “potential” babies.

The predominant concern of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling was not with women and the constitutional rights claimed on their behalf. It was with protecting physicians from prosecution for carrying out abortions and thereby killing one of the two patients the law recognized as being involved in pregnancy and its procured termination.

Other concerns—with abortion’s potential for improving the quality and reducing the size of the population—were already present in the pro-abortion camp. But they were given little public expression in the arguments or ruling in Roe v. Wade. They were too obviously discriminatory against the poor and people of color.

Black leaders at the time, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson, denounced abortion as “murder” and black genocide. Jackson later changed his position to that of the now solidly pro-abortion Democrats. But today, abortion rates continue at much higher levels among blacks than whites, Asians, or Hispanics. Abortions now outnumber live births of black babies in New York City.

The use of euphemisms has disguised the reality that Roe v. Wade unleashed the taking of human life on a vast scale (with some 60 million dying by abortion in the United States since 1973), with ever more macabre dehumanizing terms. Calling abortion services “reproductive health care” has become standard, though they aren’t oriented to reproduction or health or care, as has calling an unborn baby a blob of tissue or a product of conception.

The Expanding Circle of Non-Persons

The move to legalize and normalize abortion remains at the cutting edge of a wider movement within modern medicine and law to exclude categories of human beings from the circle of those protected by a right to life, a right not to be killed without due process as assured by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution adopted in 1868 in the aftermath of slavery.

In their amicus brief (pdf) to the Supreme Court in the upcoming Dobbs case on abortion law, renowned legal scholars John Finnis and Robert P. George argued (and provided persuasive documentation for) the view that the amendment was understood at the time it was adopted and long after to assure equal protection of the law for Americans of all races, children—born and unborn—and adults. It protected prenatal babies from abortion, which many states declared illegal at all stages.

Bioethics, meanwhile, has moved in the opposite direction, defining certain human beings as being outside the circle of persons and unprotected from measures to terminate their lives.

Camosy examines how secularized medicine in our “throwaway culture” denies fundamental equality with the rest of us to those who are no longer productive or useful. It defines some patients who are deemed to lack cognitive capacity—like those with severe brain damage, neurodegenerative disease, or advanced dementia—as already dead or as hopeless cases or as too much of a burden on others.

Britain’s ‘Death Cult’: Death in a Child’s Best Interest

Recent and current cases in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) show that even when doctors and hospitals in other countries are willing to continue treatment as the family wants, the NHS may insist on maintaining custody of the patient and terminating life.

Camosy discusses one of these cases, that of Alfie Evans, but as Bonnie Chernin puts it—in her essay about a 2-year-old Israeli girl, Alta Fixler, with severe brain damage and the NHS’s refusal to release her so she could be treated in Israel or the United States, as the parents want—“In the United Kingdom, the killing of disabled children by court order is becoming routine, and once again, the British courts have failed a disabled toddler.” The NHS insisted that the child should be kept in their custody so that they could allow her to die, a fate that the British courts ruled was in the child’s “best interest.”

Our Moral Status

We should acknowledge, Camosy argues, “that moral status—and fundamental human equality—is based on the nature of an individual, based on the kind of thing they are. And in our case, the kind of thing is a human animal.”

Where physicians and courts define individuals in terms of their capacity to be autonomous, and not in terms of their common nature and fundamental equality, we are all at risk of losing our dignity and our lives. Those judged as unworthy of life, of the protection of the law, and of a profession once dedicated to healing and doing no harm, face exclusion from the human family while still alive.

Camosy shows how economic calculation has played an important role in this dehumanizing process, as patients are seen as a burden on resources of families and health care systems, their organs coveted for transplant to others, their beds needed for other patients. They are, in terms of utilitarian calculus, worth more dead than alive.

We are all dependent on others, especially at conception and birth, in infancy, childhood, disability, sickness, old age, and dying. We are born into and depend on networks of uncalculated giving and gracious receiving.

Millions of us are headed toward declining years with advanced-stage dementia. The economic and ideological pressures promoting aggressively irreligious bioethics will not easily dissipate. They are transforming medicine and dehumanizing society.

Reversing Course

Reversing course will not be easy. Concepts of human dignity and fundamental equality were rare before Christianity became culturally influential. Slavery was universal, while abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia were common and socially accepted, notwithstanding the Hippocratic Oath of physicians.

Changing direction and restoring the dignity and humanity of which we are being shorn requires a profound shift in how we view human life. It’s a matter not only of rethinking health care, but also of a wider cultural or religious reawakening.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Paul Adams
Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.