Medical Ethics and Witness in a Time of Challenge

This weekend, the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) is holding its annual education conference in our nation’s capital. This will be an opportunity for Catholic physicians, nurses and other medical professionals to pray and reflect upon their vocation to the healing ministry, including our common calling to be “missionary disciples.”

If we look at the face of health care across the country and the world, we see that it has been changing in ways that affect everyone. The response to an illness, how the medical profession deals with us, the amount of time we spend in an acute care facility, who pays for what, and even the process of diagnosing illness are all very different from past experience. Yet, in some respects the challenges are the same as those faced by people for thousands of years.

The wide, varied and complex field of human suffering is an unavoidable part of human existence. It presents itself in the form of illness, injury, anxiety, depression and despair, diminished abilities, social alienation, loss, abandonment, and more, including the mystery of death.

Through it all in every age, there has always been the temptation for people to simply “end it all.” Yet, there has also traditionally been the recognition that medicine and society as a whole must be guided by the natural and objective moral law, which is knowable to all by right reason, including the ethic that all human life is sacred.

Thus, when we confront threats to human life arising from sickness, injury and old age, historically they have been viewed as something we should struggle against individually and collectively as a people. From the time of Hippocrates in ancient Greece, there has been an ethical code that prohibits physicians from taking a life, even when asked. More recently, groups like the American Medical Association have stated in their professional principles that it “is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer” to hasten a person’s death through in physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. Of course, in the Judeo-Christian tradition which has enlightened Western Civilization for thousands of years, we know that God alone should determine the life span of each person.

In modern times, however, have we seen the counter-argument that it is not wrong to actively take steps to end a human life as long as there are ideologically acceptable parameters that determine who lives and who dies. Nowhere is the traditional view of life, death, and God’s sovereignty over both more seriously challenged than in the medical field, where technological and scientific advances often outpace the necessary moral reflection. Increasingly we hear professionals conclude that such moral reflection is unnecessary and superfluous. Even many bioethicists today have adopted an ideology that essentially says that there are no ethical boundaries.

There is a utilitarian threat in medicine according to which truth and the good are relative, and human life is judged according to its usefulness and weighed in the scales of cost-benefit analysis. More and more, it is no longer academic talk, but real practice when it comes to such matters as assisted suicide, both passive and active euthanasia, organs being harvested as articles of commerce, cloning and hybridization, medical experimentation, and rationed medical care according to the “worthiness” of the patient’s life. These matters not long ago were the stuff of science fiction, if not prosecution.

This presents a grave challenge for all of us, but especially for a faithful Catholic on the front lines in the healing professions or studying in medical or nursing school. In the face of this destructive utilitarianism, Catholic doctors, nurses, technicians and specialists have another role beyond serving as healers of their patients, and that is to serve as the conscience of medicine.

A primary way for Catholic medical professionals to do this is to bear daily witness in their offices, patient rooms and operating theaters to the Divine Physician Jesus Christ, recognizing the transcendent dignity, value and worth of every human life, whether in the womb or in the sunset days for a terminally ill patient. Another way is to speak out, either personally or through membership in groups like the CMA, and call the medical profession to age-old moral norms as well as medicine’s own highest principles and virtues.

“The true measure of humanity,” Pope Benedict XVI counseled in his encyclical on hope, “is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society” (Spe Salvi, 38).

Medical science and technology can empower us to do many wonderful things. What they should not do is kill. By manifesting the teaching and love of Christ in what they do and say, Catholic health care workers can be the bulwark against the “brave new world” that our society needs.