Perhaps the most helpful framework for wrestling with moral issues comes from T.S. Eliot. To paraphrase, we can only know what we should and should not do with something if we first know what that something is for. For example, before we decide what we should do with human life (whether we should take it, make it, or remake it), we should know what human life is for.
Recently, Dr. Kristin Collier, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan and a speaker at this year’s Colson Center National Conference, published an important essay in the healthcare journal BMJ Leader. In it, she called doctors and the medical profession in general to return to this essential question. In fact, Dr. Collier entitled the piece, “What is Medicine For?”
Today, medical leaders are participating in an industry dominated by the production of science and technology. But what is scientifically possible for the body and what is humane for the person are different questions which medicine must answer together.
In other words, Dr. Collier says, doctors shouldn’t only ask what medicine can do. They must first ask what medicine is for. This is even more important in an age of increasingly complex ethical dilemmas in medicine.
For example, consider the abortion pill reversal regimen which, according to estimates, has led to the saving of more than 4,000 lives. Medication abortions consist of two pills, the first of which starves the baby by cutting off the mother’s production of progesterone. The abortion pill reversal is essentially a blast of progesterone, something commonly administered to women in fertility treatments. Abortion advocates in medicine and public policy oppose allowing women to even consider this option, even falsely claiming that supplemental progesterone is, or at least might be, unsafe.
So, is supplemental progesterone “good” or “bad”? On the one hand, it can be administered to save a child’s life. On the other hand, it can be used in a process that leads to the creation of an excessive number of embryos, many of which will be abandoned, discarded, or subjected to medical experimentation.
This is where Dr. Collier’s question is critically important. What is medicine for? Is the telos (or intended goal) of medicine to give us what we want, or to serve healing? And is health merely the “absence of disease or pain,” or something else?
Dr. Collier rightly points out that to answer these questions, we must first answer another, deeper one: What does it mean to be human? A holistic view, which integrates biomedical science with theological and philosophical realities, understands health as rightly ordered relationships with our bodies, with the world around us, with others, and with the God who made us.
Medicine has made many things possible. But it’s a profound and consequential mistake to assume that because we can, we therefore should. We can cut off or carve up healthy body parts in a misguided attempt to relieve the psychological pain of gender dysphoria. We can use surgical instruments or chemical drugs to kill babies in their mothers’ womb or to create babies in laboratories to be sold to adults who will have no biological connection to them. We can even prescribe lethal drugs to patients who say they want to die. But to use medicine like this violates the moral boundaries of our relationships to our own bodies, our relationships with each other, and our relationship to God, who made our bodies, who Has a specific design for marriage and family, and who forbids the taking of human life.
A biblical view of health and healing presumes a few things: first, that the absence of disease and suffering is not the full biblical picture of living well; second, that while physical death is a reality for each of us, it has not rendered living meaningless, so we shouldn’t fight the end of life as if it has; third, that our obligations to God, to the world around us, to ourselves, and to each other may come into conflict with our desire to not be in pain—physical or mental—and when they do, we ought to prioritize those relationships.
The Christian witness in the next 20 years is going to not only involve Christian doctors practicing medicine well. It will also involve Christian patients suffering well, dying well, and helping others die well as human beings made in the image of God, whose ultimate hope is in His salvation, not medical technology.
To see Dr. Kristin Collier’s speech at this year’s Colson Center National Conference, go to colsonconference.org. To hear more about how her faith shapes her medical practice, check out her interview on the Strong Women podcast.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. If you’re a fan of Breakpoint, leave a review on your favorite podcast app. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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