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The Problem of Medical Ethics
A Classroom Discussion

Before doing this activity you might like to look at the medical stories which have been in the news recently, and the article on future medical developments.

Suggestion for classroom useStudents could work in groups with one of the sections below and be asked to:

  • share what they know about the topic before reading
  • summarise the arguments in each section for and against the particular issue (e.g. cloning)
  • have a classroom debate

CLONING

The House of Commons has recently voted its approval for the cloning of human embryos for medical purposes. Soon it will become legal. Is it the first step towards cloning human beings? And if so, should we start worrying about the possible dangers that might arise? What about the following:

  • bereaved relatives trying to make a ‘new version’ of their loved ones
  • evil dictators reproducing themselves in multiple copies
  • certain nations / races attempting to produce ‘perfect' pure specimens

The possibility of legally cloning human embryos caused an outcry of protest from the Church (both Protestant and Catholic). The argument is that people should stop playing God. Cloning is manipulating life, and, as such, unethical and immoral. But at the same time, cloning is a very real chance to fight and completely cure some of the diseases which are fatal today. Contemporary medicine is still powerless in trying to combat Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer (in many cases). It is undeniable that cloning offers the patients suffering from these diseases a chance of life. If the Church wants the good of mankind, if it protects human life from the point of conception, shouldn’t it approve of any treatments that bring positive results and let people live?

One of the greatest controversies concerns the question of what kind of human cells are going to be cloned. Scientists believe that enormous progress has already been made in transforming our somatic cells (cells that already exist in our organisms). For example by transforming blood cells we can create a new liver, by transforming hair cells we can produce a number of new organs. Wouldn’t it be better then, to continue research in this domain, concentrating on improvements in transforming existing cells into new forms, rather than cloning embryos? Cloning embryos means creating life in order to annihilate it, to use it for another purpose, whereas transforming existing cells does not involve destruction of any kind.

And what about money? In the USA creating a new liver from blood cells has already been patented. Thousands of people are waiting for new livers and it is very difficult to find donors. Those with adequate resources (‘the haves’) will soon be able to ‘buy themselves a new liver’ while the poor ones will probably have to die. Isn’t medical progress a dangerous road which humankind follows for the purpose of ‘trading in life’?

People who are very critical of the decision taken by the House of Commons emphasise the fact that a crucial argument in the approval of cloning for so-called “medical” purposes was not actually a medical one, but a political one. They claim that it is not the health and well-being of men which is at stake, but the leading role of the UK in biotechnology. The cloning of the sheep Dolly in 1997 by Dr Ian Wilmut and his colleagues from Edinburgh University was a milestone in medical research. Britain wants to maintain its position as leader in today’s competitive world. So, if the motives for the support of carrying out medical experiments are not the noble wish to help those who suffer, and prolong the lives of those otherwise doomed to death, but instead a sheer desire to have more power, is the decision less justified? Do motives matter at all? Should we be interested only in the final outcome or also in the steps leading to it? Does the end justify the means?

GENETIC ENGINEERING

People who protest today against genetic engineering claim that modern medicine has entered a dangerous ‘downward path’ that will lead us to destruction. With medical progress taking great strides, it might soon be possible to change the genetic code of humans. Men may desire to breed future generations that are stronger, healthier, more beautiful and intelligent than their ancestors. Parents might want to ‘programme’ their babies, choosing their skin colour, colour of eyes and hair, or their IQ. If we stretch and improve human abilities so much, will we still be humans or are we going to develop into a new species?

Opponents of genetic engineering often overlook the fact that many daily occurrences in today’s medicine, things taken for granted and not causing any controversy or protest, are the results of yesterday’s genetic engineering. Some drugs and vaccinations popular today were created through genetic engineering, for example the vaccine against jaundice. What seemed to be mind-boggling in the past is the daily fare of today. Isn’t such an argument convincing enough to give a green light (absolute go-ahead) to all medical research?

Genetically-modified food has been getting some bad press recently. (You can find an article on this in our issue on Health). Consumers are afraid that too little is known about possible dangers and not enough research has been done into the likely consequences of eating such products. People demand full information about vegetables and fruit sold in supermarkets. But if GM food can make us more resistant to certain diseases or if it can virtually eradicate the risk of contracting diseases endemic in many parts of the world (like beri-beri in large areas of Asia or a particular variant of blindness in India), isn’t it still worth the danger?


Follow-up activities:

Students could do their own research on some of the topics listed below and present their findings to the whole class.

Topics:

TRANSPLANTS; EUTHANASIA; (INTERNET) ADOPTION;
ABORTION; ANIMAL TESTING; PLASTIC SURGERY;
SEX CHANGES; ORGAN HARVESTING AND TRADING

Useful sources of information on the above can be found at the links.

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