Modern Medical Technology and Ethics

The development of medical science and technology has raised many new issues, however. Studying these issues from within the mind of the church has produced a body of positions that are expressive of the church's commitment to the protection of life. Some of these follow.

ALLOCATION OF MEDICAL RESOURCES. A bioethical question that finds a response in the concern for the protection of life is the issue of the allocation of scarce medical resources. A healthcare system that fosters the widest possible distribution of healthcare opportunities is the most morally responsible, since it reflects the common human situation before God.

PROFESSIONAL-PATIENT RELATIONSHIPS. In the area of the relationships of providers and recipients of healthcare, the church affirms the existence of patients' rights and requires that the medical profession honor them. The full human dignity of every person under treatment should be among the controlling values of healthcare providers, manifested in their concern to maintain the patient's privacy, obtain informed consent for medical procedures, develop wholesome personal contacts between the patient and the medical team members, and treat the patient as a total human being rather than an object of medical procedures.

HUMAN EXPERIMENTATION. Because of the role it plays in the development of medical therapies and the possible cure of individual persons, human experimentation must be conducted and is morally justified by an appeal to the value of the protection of life. Wherever possible, however, such experimentation should fulfill the following minimal conditions: The patient should be informed of the risks involved and should accept participation in the experiment freely and without coercion, and the experiment should have potential benefit for the patient. Increased knowledge should be secondary to the welfare of the patient.

ORGAN TRANSPLANTATION. Protection of life finds intense application in the area of organ transplantation. This topic may serve as a somewhat more extensive example of Orthodox bioethical reflection. Organ transplantation was unknown in the ancient world. Some Orthodox Christians consider it wrong, a violation of the integrity of the body. Significant as this consideration is, it does not outweigh the value of concern for the welfare of the neighbor, especially since organs for transplants are generally donated by persons who are philanthropically motivated for the protection of life. The sale of organs is seen as commercializing human body parts and therefore unworthy, and is prohibited by a concern for the protection of life and its dignity.

There are two categories of potential donors: the living and the dead. Usually, the potential living donor of a duplicated organ is a relative. In such cases, concern for the well-being of the patient may place undue pressure upon the potential donor. No one has an absolute moral duty to give an organ. Healthcare professionals must respect the integrity of the potential donor as well as the potential recipient. Yet it is certainly an expression of God-likeness for a person to give an organ when motivated by caring concern and love for the potential recipient. Ethical consideration must be given to the physical and emotional consequences upon both donor and recipient and weighed in conjunction with all other factors. When these are generally positive, the option for organ donation by a living person has much to commend it.

In the case of donation of organs from the dead, some of the same considerations hold, while several new issues arise. Organs can be donated in anticipation of death. Some states, for example, encourage people to declare their donation of particular organs (liver, kidney, cornea) in conjunction with the issuance of auto licenses. There do not appear to be serious objections to this practice; many Orthodox consider it praiseworthy. When no expressed wish is known, permission of donation should be sought from relatives. Their refusal should be respected.

Persons may donate organs through bequests associated with their wills. This choice should be made known to responsible survivors before death. In 1989, for example, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Athens announced in the press that he had made provision for the donation of his eyes after his death.

BODY DONATION TO SCIENCE. Similarly connected with the protection of life is the issue of donating one's body to science. Much of the answer from an Orthodox Christian perspective has to do with what the representatives of science will do with it. Giving one's body to science means, in nearly all cases, that it will be used for the education of medical students. There has been a bias against this practice in many countries because at the same time that the personal identity of the body is destroyed, the body itself is treated without respect. The alternative to using donated bodies for medical education, however, is that medical students and young physicians will learn surgical skills on living patients. The concern for the protection of life could not, thus, totally disapprove of the practice of body donation. In principle, then, giving one's body for medical education cannot be ethically prohibited. But medical schools should strive to create an atmosphere of reverence and respect for the bodily remains of persons given for this purpose. In some medical schools, this already takes place; in most, it has not. Potential donors of their bodies should inquire about procedures and refuse to donate their bodies to schools that do not show adequate respect for the body. Usually this means making arrangements for ecclesial burial of the remains after their educational use.

THE AGED. The protection of life covers the whole life span. The Orthodox church has always had a special respect and appreciation for the aged. Industrial society, with its smaller, nuclear families, has tended to isolate the aged from the rest of society. The aging themselves ought not to accept such marginalization passively. They should continue to live active and fulfilling lives, with as much independence of movement and self-directed activity as possible. Spiritually, growth in the life of Christ continues to be important. Repentance, prayer, communion with God, service to others, and loving care for others are important in this and every age bracket.

Children and relatives should do everything possible to enhance the quality of life for their aging parents and relatives. But in cases of debilitating conditions and illnesses, it may be necessary to institutionalize them. Many Orthodox Christians feel that this is an abandonment of their moral responsibilities to their parents. If institutionalization is a way of abdicating one's responsibilities to parents for the sake of convenience, then it is wrong. However, it is often the best solution. Even when it is morally indicated, the important values remain; in a nursing home or outside of it, children still have the obligation to express love, care, and respect for their parents.

DEATH. Concern for the protection of life is also present at the end of life. Death should come of itself, without human intervention. God gives us life; God should be allowed to take it away. Proponents of so-called euthanasia hold that persons should be allowed and may even be obliged to end their earthly lives when "life is not worth living." In the church's judgment, this is a form of suicide, which the church condemns. If one does this to another person, it is a case of murder. Orthodox Christian ethics rejects euthanasia as morally wrong.

Modern medical practice has raised some related issues, however. The possibility that vital signs can be maintained artificially, even after death has occurred, raises the complex question of turning off "life-sustaining" machines after brain death is diagnosed. The tradition has never supported heroic intervention in situations where death is imminent and no further therapies exist. It has been Eastern Orthodox practice not only to allow a person to die but also to actively pray for it when, according to the best medical judgment available, a person is struggling to die. If a person is clinically dead but his or her vital organs are kept functioning by mechanical means, turning off the machines is not considered euthanasia. Until the determination of clinical death, both physician and family should seek to maintain the comfort of the patient. Spiritually, all should provide the dying person opportunities for repentance and reconciliation with God and with his or her fellows (Breck, 1989).

SUFFERING. In all serious medical situations, suffering should be relieved as much as possible; this is especially true for the Orthodox patient who has participated in the sacraments of Holy Confession and Holy Communion. Pain that cannot be relieved should be accepted in as redemptive a way as possible. For the church, a "good death" (in Greek, euthanasia) is one in which the human being accepts death with hope and confidence in God, in communion with him, as a member of his kingdom, and with a conscience that is at peace. Genuine humanity is achievable even on the deathbed.

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