ETHICS AND SCIENCE:STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
By Micki Peluso
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This essay is about fifteen years old, but still applies to today. As far as ethics and science are concerned, we are still treading a fine and dangerous line.
ETHICS AND SCIENCE; STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
Morality is always at odds with something, which is its sole purpose for being. Morality is in constant turmoil with law, a distant relative and with medical technology, no relation at all. Publicized reports of child organ donation and the much debated issue of fetal tissue implants are prime examples of the inability to define the limits of morality., One 19-year-old victim of terminal leukemia, was clearly dying. Bone marrow cells which matched her own could not be found among her immediate family or in nationwide searches. Her frantic parents had opted to conceive a child, specifically to donate the needed transplant, if the infant's marrow proved to be compatible. This entailed a reverse vasectomy for her father and childbirth at the age of 42 for her mother. They were desperate enough and loved their daughter enough to try anything to save her.
Although this was not a novel occurrence, and is quietly being practiced by many families across the nation, this family's decision to publicize their intent and subsequent success, threw ethicists, doctors and the nation at large into a philosophical quandry. Was it right, moral or ethical to bring a child into the world for the purpose of saving her sibling?
Let's consider some of the many reasons for bearing children: a forgotten birth control pill, a misguided attempt to save a marriage, a playmate for an only child who has become a tyrant. Not to mention surrogacy, the desire or necessity of siring an heir to a fortune, and ignorance, especially among teenagers, of effective birth control measures. Whatever the reasons, once born, most babies, although not all, are loved, bonded with and wanted. Will this family's love for the baby new baby cease if the transplant fails? Of course not.
Years ago, children were most often bred for convenience, particularly in rural areas where many children were needed to help manage farms; and to care for aging parents. In cities during the Industrial Revolution, children were bred to work long hours in sweat factories to supplement their family's meager income. Before modern health care and mandatory vaccinations became prevalent, many babies were conceived because so few lived past infancy. Think of how many children are born today simply because of religious bans on birth control and abortion. So it is a safe assumption that "the principle that individuals should be brought into the world and cherished for their own sake and no other motive," is a relatively new concept. If past history proves that we have not always done well by our children, shouldn't we take precautions to insure that future children are born and raised for the right reasons?
Pediatrician and ethicist, Dr. Norman Fost, believes that " Of all the reasons people have children, I think this is one of the better ones: to save a life." But Dr. Robert Levine, ethicist at Yale University, is disturbed by the idea of people having babies to be donors and then aborting fetuses that were not the right tissue type.
I believe that the ethical question is not whether it is wrong to conceive a child to save another child, but rather, on what grounds does society and parents have the right to donate children's organs? Children who cannot comprehend the possible dangers to themselves, either immediate or in the future.
In the above case, it was not an organ that was donated, but the "simple procedure" of the bone marrow transplant, a painful procedure, that endangered the child,s life. Many medical procedures are considered simple, but that does not guarantee the safety of the patient; ex. "The operation was a success but the patient died."
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the parents of twins decided to donate the kidney of one twin to save the life of the other, whose kidneys had failed. The operations were successful and both twins grew to adulthood. Then something happened and the twin who gave up one kidney lost the other, and died waiting for a viable transplant. What gave the parents the right to donate that child's organ and ultimately cause a later death? This is where the dilemma gets sticky. When things go well for all concerned, morality stays in the background. But when things go wrong, as they often will, we are forced to rely on ethics to protect ourselves from an over-zealous scientific community, and even our own desires. Most of us would do anything to save our children, but "anything" sometimes comes with a price tag that we cannot, as a moral society, afford.
One of my cousins donated one of her kidneys to save the life of her older, diabetic sister; a fine, altruistic act done out of pure love, and a mature decision made by a young adult, who was willing to chance living with one kidney so that her sister could live. Underage children do not have the ability to make such decisions and it is questionable whether parents have the right to make the decision for them.
Fetal tissue used for implants in treating diseases such as Parkinson's, is another matter. Regardless of whether one is pro-life, pro-choice, or pro-abortion, a certain number of abortions are going to be done, for various reasons. Wouldn't it somehow ease the pain of the often unnecessary killing of unborn children to know that other lives might be saved? Yet, if the Supreme Court succeeds in labeling the fetus as "citizen" that ethical question will enmesh itself within the tentacles of the law.
The family wanting to have a child to save their other child has worked out fine so far. The bone marrow transplant was a success, the baby is fine, and in two years her sister will sson know if she has beaten leukemia. The bond of love between the teenager and her baby sister will remain for the rest of their lives; a fairy tale ending. However, not all such stories may end so beautifully.
The darker side of the human psyche might try to breed unwanted babies for organ donation only, and seek to profit by it. We are well into the actuality of cloning whole body organs from human cells, pushing ethics to the end of its tolerance. Science, in the excitement of discovery, often mistakes what is possible for what is acceptable under the standard of societal ethics. Should morality adapt to fit the future, or remain the only regulation which might insure that we have a future?
Morality is the only counterbalance for law and medical technological advances, the only avenue in preventing the human race from rushing headlong into science fiction. Perhaps science and medical technology have already jumped far ahead of applicable ethics. Morality has not expanded to fit an ever-growing technology--and maybe never will. This can be our saving grace or our downfall.
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