Friday, June 06, 2003

Doctors are inhuman ghouls


Well, not really, but I wanted to get your attention. If you look in the comment box for my previous post, several posters, Eric and Cathy, tell stories of women who suffer from endometriosis, who were told to take contraceptives and sent on their way. One, Eric's wife, apparently had a malignant tumor that grew for many years, but whose symptoms were masked by the treatment with contraceptives. I also know several 15 year-old girls who are taking contraceptives, prescribed by doctors, in order to control cramps.


This is the exact wrong way to do medicine--find something that controls the symptons, no matter what it may be. You may ask: "Dr. Athanasius, I know you are a doctor, but your doctorate is in philosophy, not medicine! What do you know about treatment of disease?" Ah, yes. I may not know medicine, but I know human nature. I believe that I (or at least Plato and Aquinas) have a better grasp of what humans are and how they should be treated than many doctors.


Consider the concept of health. You are prescribed drugs to make you healthy. But what does it mean to be healthy? Can "health" be determined by medical research? Imagine if there was a population that suffered from a certain disease. Over time, the incidence of the disease rises, to 30%, 40%, and finally 51%. If we based health on physical examination of human bodies, we would have to conclude that the disease had now become health. Obviously this is incorrect. Even if 100% of the population got sick, they would still be sick, not healthy.


The approach to curing diseases that focuses merely on the treatment of symptons suffers from the same flaw. We can't determine if symptoms or treatments are good or not just from the physical characteristics themselves. A sympton is not good or bad in itself; good and bad are moral qualities that attach to persons. "Good" is always "Good for someone." So when we treat a disease, we cannot just say that this drug is good for this symptom, we need to examine whether the drug is good for the person who has the disease.


In the case of the women and girls I mention, the treatment is clearly bad for the person, since it takes away their fertility. It chops out a significant part of the uniqueness of the woman. If the woman is sexually active, it dooms her to intrinsically disordered and selfish sexual relations. Further, the treatment didn't ever look to the cause of the disease, but only to mask the symptom. Consider another example of a similarly dehumanizing treatment: rambunctious children are routinely prescribed Ritalin these days, so that they will behave better. The treatment masks the symptoms of bad behavior, but is it good for the person? Perhaps there is a good reason for the child to be rambunctious--perhaps he is painfully bored by a stultifying education. If he is merely drugged, will he ever learn the virtue of self-restraint? Will he need to be medicated for life?


Patients are often treated as problems to be solved, rather than as humans to be loved. This past winter I attended a bioethics conference in Chicago. One of the presenters, a nun who works as a nurse, explained how she arrived at a teaching hospital, only to hear the residents refer to some of the poorer and less cognitively alert patients as "Sposes." She was curious, and asked what "spos" meant. "Subhuman piece of shit."


Think about that. Doctors, who care for the weakest among us, were being trained to think of those least of our brethren as pieces of excrement.


This problem is not only present in the medical profession, but also can be found in education, business, and even in pastoral ministry. It is evil, and both infuriating and humiliating to those who are dehumanized. Furthermore, it is false: individual humans are not commodities or problems to be solved. They are every one of them immortal, and of infinite worth, or as Hopkins puts it, "I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,


Is immortal diamond."


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