Canaries in an ethical minefield

Canaries in an ethical minefield McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > December 7, 2000 > Canaries in an ethical minefield

Canaries in an ethical minefield

| As Western society has become increasingly secular, it has relinquished its longstanding moral compass — religion. Religious teachings and traditions just don't resonate the way they used to, notes Professor Margaret Somerville, from the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.

Photo Professor Margaret Somerville
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris

"We have this void. We no longer use religion and we have to find something to replace it with."

Somerville thinks that the recent explosion of interest in ethics, as it relates to such topics as how we treat animals, invest our money or produce our food, is a sure sign that we're trying to come up with a new moral compass to guide us toward the future.

And it's a good thing we're looking.

Thanks to rapid advances in genetics and reproductive medicine, "within the last five years we have obtained the power to profoundly alter life itself," posits Somerville. "We face questions that no generation in human history has had to contend with."

What we need to do in the face of all this, she advises, is sit down and have a thoughtful chat with one another before these new technologies change our society in a way that we might not end up liking much.

"We need an Athenian public square," asserts the Australian-born ethicist, referring to how citizens of ancient Greece would gather to debate and hammer out a consensus on the thorny issues of their day. "We need it now more than any generation that ever existed."

And to help move that discussion along, Somerville has just published a new book, The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit.

The ethical canaries of the book's title relate to a number of tricky moral dilemmas that society is currently coming to grips with. They stem, in large part, from new medical technologies that pose the very real possibility of transforming our sense of what it is to be human.

Can human cloning ever be ethical? To what extent should reproductive technologies be used to usher in new life? Is it okay for humans to replace their diseased organs with those of animals?

As canaries were once used in coal mines to probe the toxicity of the air in tunnels underground, "how we deal with [these issues] will test the air in our societal mineshaft," suggests Somerville. "Health care is an ethics laboratory for societies like Canada."

She says that some of her colleagues in science aren't enamoured with the way she views the potential repercussions of their work. "I've been called a neo-Luddite."

The attitude of some scientists is "Let's test the limits of what is possible, let's discover what is unknown. Then we'll figure out what the repercussions of the findings might be."

Among some scientists, says Somerville, "the number one fear word is 'ethics'" because debate over ethical considerations threatens to slow down the progress of some areas of inquiry. Too bad, argues Somerville.

"The notion that pure science is value-free is no longer tenable," she insists.

"Once science allows us to be capable of restructuring human life itself, once it becomes feasible to create biological weapons that can wipe out whole ethnic groups, leaving others untouched, we have to examine science very carefully."

Centuries ago, "as medicine became more and more powerful, there was the recognition that doctors could harm us in ways that others simply couldn't," explains Somerville. Out of that recognition emerged the Hippocratic Oath and its call to "first, do no harm."

Somerville believes the time has come for scientists to take a similar pledge and she has been working with UNESCO on devising such an oath.

As Somerville writes in her book, with something like cloning, "we will not have the luxury of a trial run." Once that genie is out of the bottle, it's out forever.

So, how to sort the good from the bad in terms of what these technologies present to us?

"It isn't enough to ask 'Does it do any good?' we should also ask 'Is it inherently wrong?'" Somerville writes.

In her book, she offers two litmus tests. Does the new technology in question demonstrate profound respect for life? And does it pose any kind of threat to the human spirit? The latter, she argues, is "the intangible invisible immeasurable reality that we need to find meaning in life and to make life worth living."

In the case of human cloning, while there might be medical advantages to being able to harvest replacement organs, Somerville believes the answer is no.

There is a magic and a mystery to how we come to be that is at the core of what makes us human, asserts Somerville. Sperm fertilizes egg and leads up to the creation of a thoroughly unique human being. That uniqueness is something that deserves to be safeguarded.

Somerville also makes the case against euthanasia in her book.

When administered by a physician, it warps the traditional role of doctor as healer and caregiver. If physicians have the authority to end life, Somerville believes we won't regard them in the same fashion anymore.

"We must consider whether patients' and society's trust in both their treating physicians and the profession of medicine as a whole depends in large part on an absolute rejection by physicians of intentionally inflicting death," she writes.

What about people, wracked with pain, enduring fatal illnesses?

Somerville argues that we have to devote more resources to helping such people live the lives they have left as comfortably as possible, an area where our society doesn't have a stellar track record.

Somerville has little patience, for instance, for physicians who won't administer proper doses of morphine to terminally ill patients because they don't want their charges to become "drug addicts."

The Netherlands recently legalized euthanasia after years of allowing it on an unofficial basis. "They've been doing it de facto for almost 30 years," Somerville notes.

"From studies that have been done, it seems that doctors haven't complied with the guidelines they were supposed to be following," she says.

There have been problems with record keeping and with painfully botched attempts at administering euthanasia.

Euthanasia was only supposed to be an option for terminally ill patients capable of informed consent and who gave such consent to being killed. Somerville says there is reason to suspect that many patients have died without these criteria being followed.

Despite her steadfast criticisms of the way the Dutch have dealt with euthanasia, Somerville says she is frequently invited to make presentations in the country. "They like having someone around who thinks they're terribly wrong. The Dutch are nothing if not tolerant."

After one such presentation, Somerville was approached by a Dutch doctor who believed she had an airtight case regarding one woman who asked to die.

An elderly woman, the patient had lost her husband, had accomplished all she set out to do in life, had no remaining family and was becoming increasingly debilitated. She asked for a lethal injection for months before receiving one.

Somerville's response was, "Did you think about getting her a cat?" The Dutch doctor was caught offguard. She hadn't considered whether a pet might help.

When euthanasia becomes an option, Somerville worries that it becomes too easy a solution. We don't have to bother thinking about alternatives that might still make life worthwhile.

One of the great causes of the last century has been human rights, Somerville notes, and human rights proponents have won impressive victories. She certainly has nothing against that, but she wonders if the discourse surrounding human rights has contributed to a very individualistic, situation-based view of ethics, a "what is good for me now" approach rather than a "what is good for society in general" approach.

"Human rights is a wonderful cause, but we can't lose sight of human responsibility. That's the other part of the equation — our responsibilities to society."

She would like to see businesses, scientists and other societal players stop viewing ethics "as a hurdle to be cleared." Too often businesses that find themselves mired in controversy view the episode as "a public relations problem when it's really an ethical issue that they aren't dealing with.

"Ethics isn't something you ought to be doing after the fact. It's a process, not an event."

Noting that the first universities were often religiously affiliated institutions that dealt with major spiritual questions, Somerville believes that it would be apt for universities to take on a leadership role in helping society reach a new consensus about what is ethical today.

"I would love to see McGill take the lead in this. Why not an Institute for Ethics in Society?"

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