Going Ape In O.R.

An imagined logical continuum connecting band-aids and artificial hearts serves to silence our objections to the current spate of medical experimentation. Organ transplants, suggestive though they are of body-snatchers and other Transylvanian types, have survived our first timid demurs. Interspecies transplants expand the spare parts image and invest “meaner than a junkyard dog” with new significance. And now we have come to plastic hearts. Where will it all end?

Jokes don’t help much, e.g. saying that your mother-in-law has had a plastic heart all her life. There is a hoary logical puzzle concerning the ship that is rebuilt while crossing the Atlantic: is it the same ship that docks at Southampton that sailed from Hoboken? How many plastic parts would make a person another person? Or only an impersonation?

We are told that our resistance to heart transplants is due to a tradition as long as the race which sees the heart as the center of our being, of thought, of love. Poetry would be impossible without it. All myth and superstition, of course. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are presumably metaphors gone mad. Perhaps. Or perhaps we should be guided by that tradition and encourage rather than squelch the repugnance we feel.

I am not sure what the decisive argument against plastic organs is, though I think there must be one. Gorilla hearts are obviously a no-no, for reasons Father Barry provides at the outset of his article in this issue. I would like to be clearer on all this than I am, but it is the confusion and inconsistency in the medical industry that bothers me more.

What disarms criticism of medical experimentation is the claim that it is carried on in order to prolong human life. Human life is so precious that we should do anything to prolong it. But this of course is nonsense. The fact that human life is an unquestioned good does not entail that the end of preserving it justifies any and all means. The end does not suffice to justify the means even when the end is the prolongation or preservation of human life. Needless to say, this does not give us a criterion for distinguishing between permissible and impermissible means, but it enables us to see that there is that problem.

Imagine that a heart patient could be hooked up to a healthy individual and his life prolonged by a sort of jump-cable method. Maybe patients could be wired in series like batteries in a lab and function as work stations of the same computer? Distasteful? Of course it is. We should encourage that distaste. Aesthetics may be more helpful than anesthetics here.

It is a well-established principle of medical ethics that one need not employ extraordinary means to prolong life. There are also means that should never be employed. Let us not be distracted from these truths by unctuous invocations of the value of human life. Such invocations do not ring true given what is going on in hospitals and clinics across the nation. The simple truths of the Hippocratic Oath have long since been obscured by medical practice.

What one fears in surgeons is not a reverence for life so absolute that baboons become a thinkable source of spare parts. It is not reverence for life but a hubristic desire to have power over it that one senses. The patient is necessary to validate the procedure, but it is the procedure, the technique, the power, that are celebrated.

Perhaps, once the slaughter of the innocent has been stopped, it will be possible to be edified by the allocation of enormous resources to the production of Tin Men.

i- � ef`6 �4 or-latin;mso-hansi-theme-font:major-latin’>The bishops’ subject is supposed to be the economy. But a substantial proportion of their text deals with political decisions to be taken by the state.


The bishops call for a new bill of rights, this time, “economic rights.” This is a dangerous use of the word “rights.” To every right there corresponds a duty. Who has the duty to find shelter, food’ and income for an individual? In the first place, that person himself. As with the classic inalienable rights, the state should not interfere with the right of a person to support himself.

Only when that person is unable to be self-reliant, through no fault of his or her own, does a claim on others arise. In a good society, the vulnerable and needy deserve to be cared for, as a matter of justice, as well as charity, because of their dignity (and need) as fellow human beings. But such a claim falls short of being a “right” in the classic sense. It is conditional.. It arises from a person’s involuntary inability. The true economic right is the right to be self-reliant. Claims arising from disability fall short . of being rights.

“To say that the bishops are not proposing radical changes would be wrong,” one of the drafters of the document has told the press. He speaks of a radical “restructuring” of the U.S. economy. What is so sad is that what he here calls radical is, chiefly, a set of old left ideas now discredited not only in the country at large but even among socialists. These “radical” elements do not flow from the scriptures, from the Catholic tradition, from the American tradition, or even from the document’s own early premises. They seem added for shock value. They have offended many.

In short, back to the drawing boards. This first draft needs lots of work. It is unnecessarily divisive, less on religious than on practical political matters.



  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...