Meadville Tribune

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October 1, 2009

LOCAL COLUMN: Bioethics — Tough questions for us all to consider

By James F. Drane

After World War II, the U.S. government invested an enormous amount of money in medicine; medical research, medical procedures and medical technologies. This investment made contemporary scientific medicine into American medicine, characterized by a continuing flow of new treatment possibilities.

These advances raised all kinds of ethical questions. Some were personal and individual, others were social and political. Both type questions are addressed by a new academic discipline called bioethics.

The first attempt to develop a scientific medicine took place in Greece in the 5th century B.C. It was called Hippocratic medicine. Closely linked with this first scientific medicine was a refined medical ethics which spelled out how medicine should be practiced. Today’s scientific medicine is radically different and raises new ethical questions addressed by bioethics, the new medical ethics. Some of the older ethical issues remain, like the limits imposed by human finitude, the need to stop treatments that are futile, the fear of death and dying, the need for healers to be committed to help others rather than to promote their own interests. The new bioethics reaches into law, politics, philosophy, religion, literature and science. It reaches into individual life, social life and the popular media. The issues that it addresses in one form or another literally reach everyone.

The Nancy Schiavo case provides a good example of how many different interests can come together around a particular medical case. Nancy had suffered a stroke which left her without consciousness, with only vegetative functions, and maintained by new technologies. Involved in trying to decide what to do there were individual interests, family concerns, issues of medical futility, political differences, and on and on. As this one case shows, there is an enormous public interest in the many different questions raised by contemporary medicine. Judges became involved, politicians intervened, groups organized around different perspectives, religious authorities made official declarations, and the struggle among the different interests was often uncivil, indeed violent.

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