Recent Evolution of Cultural Conflicts

Although Parsons expected death-related matters to remain controversial, he could not foresee the recent evolution of cultural conflicts. The intense social criticism of funeral and mourning customs has subsided, though practices have changed little. How "life" and "living being" should be defined before birth and at the approach of death remain effervescent issues. Public debates over abortion not only have persisted but have grown in intensity, bitterness, and political importance. Issues of end-of-life care and the use of extreme measures to maintain life continue to figure in public discussion, often in connection with legal cases. Procedures once viewed as extreme, such as kidney, liver, and heart transplants, have become routine at many medical centers, but discussion continues around such issues as who should be treated—for example, whether persons with alcohol dependence should receive new livers or smokers new lungs, or whether HIV-positive patients qualify for organ transplants. The public attends with ever greater interest to advances in medicine, with new findings and procedures featured routinely on television and in newspapers. Coverage of heroic lifesaving procedures in particular resonates deeply in American moral culture, dramatizing shared beliefs in the unique value of each life. Themes of self-improvement pervade reports on the health food, antismoking, physical exercise, environmental, and even animal-rights movements.

Despite impressive institutions to master death, contemporary civilization remains acutely insecure over life (Fox and Swazey). The mass media's increasing attention to medicine, and especially to life-threatening conditions, has left the public less secure about health and more readily made anxious over environmental threats and even endemic conditions. The intensity of public fears over apparent "hot spots" of breast cancer in particular communities, over risks of anthrax infection following "terroristic" mailings of a small number of letters containing anthrax spores in the autumn of 2001, and over small risks of West Nile virus in the summer of 2002 are instances. In the context of anxiety over health, matters of personal habit and lifestyle, including diet, exercise, work schedules, and even sexual practices, are adjusted by many whenever new knowledge suggests possible effects on well-being or longevity. Parsons would have viewed such changes in personal habits as efforts to extend mastery over the conditions of life, including death.

In attending patients with highly cultivated medical insecurities, physicians have a limited fund of trust to draw upon, a situation that promotes the practice of "defensive medicine." When the lives of patients are genuinely at risk, pressures build to use the most advanced technologies and extreme measures to show that everything possible is being attempted. This is sometimes the case even when the chances of success are small and when the quality of the lives that may be extended will be quite limited. These tendencies persist while the public also worries over the rising aggregate costs of medical care and health insurance.

In the context of post-Enlightenment secular beliefs about human rights, Western societies have generally established a right of citizens to receive medical care. Different institutions have been established to secure this right, including government single-payer, publicly subsidized private, employer-paid, and combined health insurance systems. The United States stands out among Western nations for not having established universal healthcare or health insurance, although Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor cover many economically vulnerable citizens.

From the mid-1990s, U.S. national policy has engaged the issue of further democratization of access to medical care. The public has become aware that large sectors of the population lack medical insurance and, hence, access to healthcare independent of personal ability to pay for it. Although the desirability of providing better care to citizens of modest means and the poor is generally accepted, proposals about how to manage the costs while protecting the freedom of doctor—patient relationships are controversial. Proposals that appear to restrict the freedom of relationships between patients and practitioners, whether rights of patients to select their practitioners or the rights of practitioners to treat patients as they believe correct, are widely opposed. Moreover, new plans for cost containment have not directly confronted public sentiments favoring use of "heroic measures" and experimental procedures regardless of cost—sentiments that become especially forceful when physicians and family members face a patient's impending death. Eventual policy remains uncertain, but a system of national health insurance would extend "instrumental activism" in medicine by offering more secure protection from illness, suffering, and death for less affluent citizens.

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