Medical experts must safeguard life while pursuing cure
For Legatus magazine readers and chapter members (I’ve had the honor of speaking to chapters throughout the country), I might seem a curious choice to weigh in on bioethics. Legatus folks are accustomed to my cogitations on culture, politics, even historical figures like Pope St. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. What could I possibly have to say about bioethics?
Well, in what seems like another lifetime but sticks with me and shaped me forever, three decades ago I worked for the organ transplant team at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, namely for Dr. Thomas Starzl, who pioneered transplantation. In the 1980s, we did 90 percent of the world’s transplants and trained the surgeons who would launch their own centers worldwide.
I did research on the groundbreaking immunosuppressant drug, code-named FK-506. It turned out to be the breakthrough we long needed, to protect against organ-transplant rejection. Prior to its advent, I frequently felt like we were buying time, at the cost of many lives. I kept a journal and often thought that if I ever wrote a book, I’d lamentably call it Buying Time.
But alas, the time came. FK506 saved us, as did other breakthroughs. But I agonized over the process.
It was hard watching so many suffer, with initial life expectancies ranging from a few weeks to a few months to a few years, almost seeming to plateau. We drew patients’ blood multiple times per day, and they and their families lived in fear. My hope was that these poor souls were getting precious extra years until the procedure was mastered or until an elusive immunosuppressant was found.
This wore on Starzl, too. From the time of his first patient in the 1960s, he was attacked. Faculty and students at Pitt’s School of Medicine started a petition to stop this “Dr. Frankenstein.” Starzl persevered. Now, the lives saved from his revolution have skyrocketed from a dozen or so in the 1970s to well over 100,000 and growing.
Of course, Starzl isn’t alone. So many pioneers went through this arduous process. I think of another University of Pittsburgh researcher: Dr. Jonas Salk.
In April 1955, Salk announced to an ecstatic world that he had developed a vaccine for polio, a vicious virus that terrified every mom and dad. Salk, too, was attacked. Confident of his vaccine, he injected his own children and himself. In short order, two million volunteers lined up for a mass clinical trial.
By the 1990s, when I walked by Salk Hall on Pitt’s campus, polio was all but eradicated in the United States.
So move the difficult wheels of biomedical progress. Right now, as over 300,000 worldwide perish from COVID-19, we cry out for another Salk or Starzl—as we also cry out to God for mercy.
And yet, as Catholics, we must never allow the pursuit of such goals to come at the expense of the dignity of the human person.
As Pope John Paul II warned in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), we must strive to avoid the “ethical relativism which characterizes much of present-day culture.” Health care workers and researchers must honor “the ancient and still relevant Hippocratic Oath, which requires every doctor to commit himself to absolute respect for human life and its sacredness.” We must engage in a “united ethical effort … in support of life.”
Buying time is unavoidable as cures are vigorously sought, especially for the terminally ill. But we must never view those suffering through the process as sacrificial or expendable. They’re not guinea pigs. They’re human beings made in God’s image. Honoring life means carefully honoring them at every step.
PAUL KENGOR is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, PA. He is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century