Monday, June 22, 2015
It’s Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature
We live in a wondrous age of medical technology that our ancestors surely would have thought magic. 

Routine medical treatments that are taken for granted today most certainly would have been considered witchcraft or miracles in an earlier time. 

To me, many of them still seem that way. 

Consider some examples that are now not only commonplace but have become routine: cataract surgery, heart bypass surgery, angioplasty and artery stents, hip and joint replacements, antibiotics, organ transplants, in vitro fertilization, surrogate birth, arthroscopic surgery, CAT scans and MRIs.

The list seems endless. 

Americans tend to take it all in stride, accepting and embracing each startling new medical breakthrough that comes along as if it is simply part of our birthright.  

A while back, I was struck by another application of technology in medicine, the development of a tiny camera, so small that the patient can swallow it.  As it travels through the body, it sends the data it gathers to a hard drive that is worn on the patient’s belt.  The camera takes two pictures every second. There are no tubes and no wires. 

One important use of this amazing technology is to locate the source of internal bleeding.  The camera makes it possible to pinpoint the exact location of trouble in just a few hours, thus enabling surgeons to operate in precisely the right location without having to look for it.  This miracle of technology is called “capsule endoscopy.”

An obvious benefit of our many astonishing advances in medical technology is the longevity we enjoy in this country today.  As recently as the early 1900s, the average lifespan for Americans was only about forty-four years.  A hundred years later, for babies being born today, it is around eighty.  A remarkable accomplishment by any standard.

But, there is a much larger question involved in all of this: Does anything go?  Is everything new beneficial simply by definition, no matter what it is or does?  How are we to know which technological advances in medicine are truly desirable?  Or ethical?  Or moral?  And, who will make such choices on our behalf? 

The popular TV commercial that used to say, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” may have been telling us something.  Just how far do we really want to carry medical technology? 

Will the six million dollar man actually become a reality?  Cyborgs?  What about genetic engineering?  Cloning to replace a lost child?  Using other species as a source of replacement organs? 

Pig or chimpanzee hearts, for example.  Do we really have the moral right to use other animals this way? 

How about cloning humans for the purpose of harvesting the parts?   Does anyone worry about the possibility of unintended consequences?  What if the result turns out to be something no one anticipates or wants, such as severe deformities?  Is another form of Thalidomide baby, or worse, somewhere in our future again?

I am reminded of the movie, “Soylent Green (1973),” which was based on the proposition that, due to overpopulation, food in the world of the future will become so scarce that the government resorts to feeding people with a green cracker-like product that is supposedly made of soy beans or plankton, but in fact is made by recycling humans.  It’s a horrifying idea to contemplate, and I still remember how shocked I was at the time I saw the film, as you probably are reading this. 

Yet, given the pace at which modern technology is advancing, the rate of worldwide population growth and the situational ethics that exist today, can we completely rule out the possibility that something like this could happen in the future?

Just because we can do something does not necessarily mean we should.  The mere fact that it can be done does not make it right.  Or does it?

As we move further into the new millennium, advanced technology will force us to confront ever more dramatic choices about health care, ethics and morality.

The first face transplant in France is a good example: In 1994 a nine-year-old girl’s face was “ripped off when her hair was caught in a thresher.” 

The headline on a June 13 YAHOO article, “Surgeon promising first human head transplant makes US pitch,” really got my attention.  The notion of such an operation is beyond my comprehension and raises a number of bizarre issues.  I’ll leave it to you to “fill in the blanks” for yourself.

Are we really equipped to make every life and death decision that may be made possible by advanced medical technology but that may be considered unethical, immoral or just plain playing God?

Where do we go from here?

© 2015 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved

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