An End to Disability?

Well, some kinds anyway.

Current medical technologies in the field of regenerative medicine have regrown the severed tip of a man’s finger (about a 1/2 inch) in 10 days.  With some refinement those who have lost entire limbs or who have suffered severe burns and/or scarring may also be given new hope… or would they?  I don’t think this is as clear cut an issue as it may first appear.

For many people their physical abilities and physical form are a huge part of who they are.  Giving this up to become “normal” may not be the obvious choice that many likely believe.  Nor is it clear that this would be a good thing, either for those facing the choice or the rest of us.  A richness of perspective and a host of other benefits are brought to the world as a consequence of there being people of differing abilities.  Whether it is something as commonplace as the installation of a wheelchair ramp that doubles as a bike jump or as world changing as the rise of the modern intensive care unit in response to the polio epidemic of the twentieth century* there are benefits to heterogeneity that would be lost in a world of normals.

I think the first response of our world would be to “heal the suffering” and to “save those in need”.  We’d see those who would refuse treatment as being slightly crazy, in the same way that parents who choose to keep children classed as severely disabled as being crazy (see this previous post for a chilling example), thereby giving us cause to step in an take make the choice that they are not in the right mind to make.  I admit that this is my initial response.  But in my gut I also have another hope, namely that some of those whom we would force our help on, either physically or through subtler forms of violence and oppression, will have the strength to hold us off—we never know what’s coming for us and if we should have learned anything at all from studying evolution it should have been that a diversity of ideas and people are the best way to play the odds.  Or perhaps I’m totally out to lunch?

Medical technology really does open a Pandora’s Box of ethical questions and moral trials, doesn’t it?

To read the original article about regrowing a finger with “Pixie Dust” as reported by the BBC, just click Continue reading

Medical “Ethics”?

I have to share the following true story.

Not too long ago, I attended a talk on medical ethics. The speaker was presenting a number of test cases for discussion. One of the test cases imagined a 32-year-old woman who had an accident that left her with quadriplegia and requiring ventilator assistance. 10 weeks after her injury, she asks her doctor to disconnect the ventilator. The speaker argued that the doctor should respect the patient’s right to self-determination and disconnect the ventilator. There was no subtlety expressed by the speaker about whether 10 weeks was long enough for the person to know what her life could be like after disability. There was no awareness expressed about objections to these sorts of right-to-die cases that have been expressed in the disability literature. There seemed to be no awareness about worries that have been discussed in medical ethics since at least the 1980’s that people who become dependent after such accidents may express a wish to die as a response to concerns about being a “burden,” and to the larger society’s implications that it wishes to be “rid” of such “burdens.” In other words, whose desires are people in such situations who say they wish to die really carrying out: their own “autonomous” desires, or the larger society’s desires to be “rid” of them? Such questions should give us pause as to whether people in such circumstances are really making autonomous decisions and engaging in self-determination when they ask people to help them die.

In a discussion afterword that was somewhat critical of the speaker’s position, Continue reading