Ethical Issues in Health & Medicine

As we gain better and better control of the body and its health, we are exposed to worse moral dilemmas.  Here are some of the toughest ethical issues in health & medicine.

Being a medical ethicist has never been harder.

1) Genetic modification

The complete sequencing of a copy of the human genome was a tremendous breakthrough.  Since then, however, treatments and cures based off of genetics have been limited.

That said, right now innovative treatments based off genetic modification are becoming more and more plausible.  For instance, recently a man was cured of AIDS when he received a bone marrow transplant (because he also had leukemia).  We are reaching the stage where we might be able to harvest some cells from your body, inject them with new genetic material, and put them back in.

Another area of concern is that of “designer babies.”  We are now able to tell at an extremely early stage if a baby will have certain genetic disorders.  And that allows selective abortions to take place, which can prevent tragedies like a child who will die an agonizing death over several months.  It can also allow selection for traits like sex and even height.

It could get worse.  We could reach a point where fetuses are normally removed from the womb, injected with genetic data, and reimplanted.

This can lead to a society where only the rich can afford to make their babies healthier, smarter, better looking.

2) Premature babies

We are turning the clock back on when a baby needs to be born in order to survive.  As science gets better and better, extremely premature babies have switched from certain death to possible struggle to survive.

The problem is that such care can be very expensive and doesn’t guarantee health.  A baby could survive with retardation and barely functional lungs, for instance, at the cost of several million.  By contrast, that same money could have saved hundreds of fully healthy people from starvation.

(Can you imagine having to tell a parent that?)

Being able to save babies that are very young also indirectly threatens the morality of abortion.  If a month old fetus could live a happy and healthy life if supported in a laboratory, it somehow seems more of an ethical quandary to commit an abortion.

3) Performance Drugs

As we understand the brain in greater detail, we are able to develop drugs that stimulate it.  This has proven a life-saver for the millions of people with attention deficit disorder, and could be a tremendous breakthrough for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

It could also, however, be of great use to normal people.  If a pill could improve your memory, focus and concentration – why not take it?  This also leads to a slippery slope.  You can imagine a workforce where it is the culture to take performance enhancers routinely, and your boss yelled at you if you didn’t do so as well.

This pressure to take pills for focus is already intense at the best schools.  Spend time in the library at any top college, and you will overhear students talking about using pills like Adderall for better focus and attention.

4) Resuscitation and Life Support

With modern technology, we can keep people alive for a long time.  In the vast majority of cases, this has proven a godsend, and can be of especial use to save someone who has slipped into a temporary coma.  It has, however, led to controversy.

Is it worth spending a large amount of resources on keeping someone who is totally brain-dead alive?  Some medical ethicists have reported that question is on the easier side of what they face!

Imagine you’re a doctor operating on a patient whose life you could save.  But if you do, they will spend their entirely life completely immobilized, only able to move their eyes.  Worse, they would be in tremendous pain.

Fully conscious but unable to do anything whatsoever.

All you would have to do to prevent this from happening is slow down a little.  If your operation took 2 hours instead of 1 and a half, the patient would die.  And no one would ever know.

That’s an ethical dilemma.

5) Euthanasia

What do you do when someone is undergoing a slow, horrible death – and they want your help out?  People who suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis slowly become paralyzed and lose the ability to swallow or talk and eventually die.

What on earth do you do for someone who has that and wants to die?

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