Body Ethics

Body Ethics

by Merle Hoffman

The symptoms arrived a few years ago. At first I experienced them as a generalized discomfort, amorphous and confused, but they got progressively worse, escalating into a pervasive feeling of sickening dread. I searched for answers in the traditional landscapes of medicine, neurology, psychiatry. Finding no organic source, I turned to philosophy and realized that my symptoms resembled the disease described by Jean Paul Sartre in his novel Nausea—-a state of experiential disgust brought on by despair, anguish, and the recognition of one’s unique loneliness in the universe. My existential nausea, I came to understand, resulted from the failure of my psychological immune system to defend against the increasingly surreal events that had been sliding under the door with the newspaper, seeping in through the wires with CNN. My inherent optimism and ability to imbue events with meaning had been overrun by the collective reality, which was getting harder and harder to bear.

Minotaur Surprised while Eating, 1986-87, by Maggi Hambling (b. 1944). Tate Gallery, London/ Art Resource, NY

In the service of the god Immortality, we have created a world where people are worth more brain-dead than alive.

In an attempt at self-help and cultural resistance, I would stop reading and watching for a time, only to find myself continually drawn back to them like some reluctant tropism. It wasn’t that I was overwhelmed by the continuing violence, horror, and arbitrary tragedies of daily reports. It was the appearance of something new—something so boldly obscene that it immediately engaged my attention.

The latest bit of this news involved “xenotransplantation,” the breeding of animals for organ transplants rather than food. Out on what has been described as the frontier of ethics and medicine, a range of technological attempts to detour death and reach for immortality may alter what is acceptable to do to human beings and animals in a profound and potentially irreparable way. These are not historically distanced reports of medical experiments “the enemy” did in Nazi Germany or imperial Japan. These are our very own homegrown atrocities, and they are spreading all over the world wherever mainstream medicine meets the demands of universal consumerism.

During the last few years, the American government and private researchers have spent millions of dollars in an effort to produce animals that contain human traits—contaminating the genetic integrity of species to commercialize animal bodies and body parts. In a desire to play God (a genetic trait of scientists) by mixing and matching genes, patenting life forms, and using genetic cloning, researchers have created a wide variety of transgenic creatures. Designer animals, such as the “super pig,” lame, impotent, and riddled with arthritis, and giant cows that produce the perfect steak but are too huge for their mothers to birth naturally, are the visible results of science without morality, technology without compassion.

In May, Nextran, Inc. in Princeton, New Jersey announced it had successfully bred “transgenic” pigs, animals that contain human genes that make human patients less likely to reject a transplanted organ. Clinical trials implanting their organs into humans are planned within the next two years In a society so generally immune t the ethical dilemmas of raising an slaughtering animals for food, the possibility of Americans walking around with pig hearts and chimpanzee kidneys has raised alarm bells among ethicists, animal rights activists, and religious leaders. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said these transplants border on “bestiality,” while Strachen Donnelley of the Hastings Center, an ethics research institute in Briarcliff Manor, New York, said they might be injurious to animals and wondered about the psychological implications of living with a pig’s heart. (Perhaps, I mused, we should work on reverse psychological transplantation and give humans the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs or the focused integrity of cats.)

In June 1995, 40,759 Americans were on an ever-increasing list for donated organs; an estimated 3,000 people a year die waiting for one. According to John Roberts, M.D., F.A.C.S., an associate professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, there’s a potential market of $6 billion for animal transplants alone. That’s serious money. And serious business. Despite the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, a historic prohibition on the sale of organs for transplants, tens of thousands are being marketed all over the world. According to Andrew Kimbrall, author of The Human Body Shop: The Engineering and Marketing of Life, a recent survey in India found that the price paid for organs could be more than most donors made in a lifetime. A mother of two whose husband had lost his job stated, “There was only one thing that I could sell and still keep my self respect: my kidney.”

During a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the renewal of China’s most favored nation status, reports told of a thriving organ market where people are paying up to $30,000 for available body parts. The fact that these were being “donated” by executed prisoners raises even more complicated ethical issues.

David J. Rothman, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, told of an American transplant surgeon who was assured that an execution would be scheduled to fit his calendar. According to Rothman, Chinese physicians are deeply involved in the process, and may insert a tube in the prisoner before execution and an intravenous line immediately after the prisoner is shot in the head. Arguing that the lack of professional regulation and standards within the Chinese medical community made it possible for “physicians to lose all sense of professional integrity and ethics,” Rothman stated that “in these circumstances, medicine becomes the handmaiden to the state, whether the issue is eugenics or transplant.” He views traditional medical ethics as a brake against unchecked state power, citing the atrocities committed in Germany and Japan during World War II. He does not question the ethics of organ transplants themselves, just the method of procurement.

“Medicine offers a particularly advantageous area for providing an alternative to unlimited state authority. Ethical principles must limit state dominion—and in this effort there is no better place to start than medicine,” Rothman concluded. But what if medicine is not a handmaiden to fascist Germany or imperial Japan, but to freemarket capitalist economies? What if medicine serves a master who is not fascist or communist but consumerist, whose principles are limited to creating profit centers regardless of the cost in human or animal suffering?

And what if these free-market forces are augmented by a collective Western cultural system of death denial that elevates and celebrates any defense against death as a high moral achievement? In the service of the god Immortality, who demands an ever-increasing supply of organs, anything goes—animal manipulation, physician-assisted executions, even attempts to expand the legal definition of death. Because only about 25,000 of the more than two million people who die every year in the United States are potential organ donors under the current death definition, this new concept would add to that pool those who have lost “higher” brain functions but still retain the ability to breathe on their own. These “permanent vegetatives” include people like Karen Ann Quinlan and anencephalic children, babies born with most of their brains missing. Because organs deteriorate so quickly after death, certain states are already considering legislation that would declare these babies “dead” before they die.

We have now entered the ultimate Cartesian universe of mind/body dualism, a universe where it is possible to view the body without consciousness as a mere repository of potentially usable parts. We have created a world where people are worth more brain-dead than alive. Any issues raised by these medical “miracles” are muted by the supreme laws of supply and demand.

Interestingly, the arguments in support of creating a free market for the sale of body parts echo those used to support prostitution. In the same way many argue that prostitution is a legitimate choice for the poor with limited options, selling organs is seen as a viable option for those desiring to better their status in society. The mantra of “free choice” is used to describe the entitlement to sell them, preferably to the highest bidder. An organ, however, unlike the sexual functions of prostitutes, is not a renewable resource. Souls or dignity notwithstanding, a kidney sold is a kidney lost.

When the buying and selling of organs becomes another “free choice” for the poor to make to survive, the fundamental meaning of the self is contaminated by a profound loss of bodily integrity. I consume, therefore I am. I can commodify, therefore I am.

Consuming each other and commodifying ourselves, we are still compelled to search for meaning. A recent gathering of more than 200 scientists on the theme of “the flight from science and reason” deplored what they viewed as an organized attack on the scientific method. Citing faith healing, astrology, religious fundamentalism, and paranormal charlatanism as major threats against reason, they issued a call to arms. According to The New York Times, Dr. Paul Kurtz, professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, contended that postmodernists of both the political left and right denied that scientific knowledge is possible. This is an “erosion of the cognitive process, which may undermine democracy,” he said. With science now claiming to be the savior of freedom and global democracy as well as the brakes against fascism and communism, any questioning of its motives can appear blasphemous, anti-intellectual and, ultimately, anti-democratic.

In the continuing search for meaning and transcendence, is it any wonder that some of us gaze at the stars, choose to be healed by “God’s love,” or want to communicate with others beyond ourselves? Science can indeed dazzle and physically elevate us with its marvels. What it cannot do is be self-limiting and self-reflective. It also cannot act as a buffer against political forces that attempt to expand their credibility and power with promises of Utopia and the creation of an ever evolving “New Man.” Their agendas are far too similar.

Science may be able to extend our lives but it will never be able to imbue them with meaning or purpose. For that we must eschew the brilliance of technology and the beauty of the stars and ultimately look to ourselves.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.