Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Meaning Of Progress

One of the interesting aspects of many debates regarding medical ethics is the frequency with which the term "playing God" appears. That has been the clear implication of the position of the family of baby MB - that as medical treatment can keep him alive, it is obviously the will of God (or, in this case, Allah) that such treatment should be given.

I have the greatest sympathy with the family of baby MB, and I hope to God that I never have to deal with their situation. Nevertheless, I find the invocation of a deity in these cases to be very curious, because it suggests a totally one-sided view of progress.

The fact is that even a couple of decades ago, baby MB would have died. If the treatment was not there, then the prolonging of baby MB's life beyond what would have happened naturally would not have been possible. If we are going to invoke the phrase "playing God", then we have to explain why God wants babies lives to be prolonged now when in the past it would not have been possible.

As far as I can see, "progress" should be a term limited to technological advance in these cases. Everything that happens outside of direct technological advancement is limited to the moral judgement of humans. Take the development of electricity, for example, and what it has made possible. It is easy to focus on the obviously good things - like the fact I am able to sit in front of my computer this evening and type out this missive. Yet it has also made possible the electric chair.

Medical advances are wonderful, and can prolong life - indeed, as a diabetic, I am well aware of what technological advances can achieve. Invoking God in these debates is much more difficult though. To do that, you have to explain why life is so precious it should be clung on to at all costs; why the artificial prolonging of suffering and pain is moral and justified.

These are evidently grey areas, that are emotionally upsetting even to think about, much less experience. I find it hard to accept that a concept as simple as progress can be applied in these situations - much less the idea that we are "playing God" by making decisions over life and death. Insofar as we are given technological advances, it is for us to work out how they should be used. Prolonging life at all costs is something I find difficult to accept, when it would involve huge and forced suffering. And in any case, how are we not "playing God" by prolonging life beyond its natural state?