Oh-oh: Here they come. For years, organ transplant ethicists and some in the bioethics community have agitated to increase the supply of donated organs. There is nothing wrong with that in the abstract, of course. Increasing the supply would alleviate much human suffering and is devoutly to be wished.
But therein lurks a great danger. Increasing supply is a worthy goal only so long as the organs are obtained ethically. But there is a growing chorus among the Medical and Bioethical Intelligentsia to obtain more organs by harvesting living patients. Yes, some of our most influential voices now seek a license to kill for organs.
They don’t put it that bluntly, of course. Rather—reflecting the spirit of our times—advocates argue that our definition of death should be changed to allow a great pretense that living patients are actually dead, thus permitting organ procurement. For example, the internationally prestigious science journal Nature recently editorialized for the liberalization of the rules governing the declaration of brain death in order to obtain more organs.
Currently, brain death requires the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain and each of its constituent parts. Nature’s editorial claimed—without proof—that doctors obey “the spirit but not the letter, of this law. And many are feeling uncomfortable about it.”
As well they should. But the proper answer to unethical practice isn’t to accommodate wrong behavior by redefining it as right. Rather, it is to work to bring actual methods back into proper alignment with legal and ethical practice.
Instead, Nature descends into rank relativism, arguing that “the legal details of declaring death in someone who will never again be the person he or she was should be weighed against the value of giving a full and healthy life to someone who will die without transplant.” In other words, some of us are more valuable than others of us, and those deemed inferior can be used as if they were mere natural resources.
In that seductive prescription is the end of human equality and universal rights. Lest you think I exaggerate, a 2004 article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics seriously proposed that patients diagnosed to be in a persistent vegetative state—like Terri Schiavo—have their kidneys harvested for use in transplantation, and then replaced by pig organs to test whether animal to human transplantation (xenotransplantation) could be performed safely. “If it can be agreed upon that PVS bodies can be regarded as dead,” Ghent University (Belgium) philosopher An Ravelingien wrote, “then experimenting on them is legitimate under the same conditions as experimenting on cadavers.”
We are not—yet—at the point that society will permit open harvesting and experimentation on cognitively devastated people. But that doesn’t mean we won’t get there.
The slippery slope undermining human exceptionalism—the intrinsic value of human life simply and merely because it is human—is already slip-sliding away. Popular majorities support using nascent human life as corn crops in embryonic stem cell research, if the embryos were “leftovers” and going to be thrown out anyway. But scientists have already moved beyond that early limitation. Many are now actively researching human cloning toward the end of manufacturing embryos for use and destruction in research.
And it won’t stop there if current trends continue. We already see early advocacy for “fetal farming,” that is, gestating fetuses for use in organ transplantation and medical experimentation. Thus bioethicist Jacob Appel urged in the Huffington Post that women who intend to abort should be paid to carry their babies into the later stages of pregnancy so that the aborted fetuses can be harvested. He even suggests that fetuses be created solely for this purpose:
Someday, if we are fortunate, scientific research may make possible farms of artificial “wombs” breeding fetuses for their organs — or even the “miracle” of men raising fetuses in their abdomens. That day remains far off. However, the prospect of fetal-adult organ transplantation is a much more realistic near-term possibility. A market in such organs might benefit both society and the women who choose to take advantage of it.
It would be a terrible mistake to say, “It can’t happen here.” For as the late theologian Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once wrote, “Thousands of medical ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.”
That process is steaming full speed ahead in the related fields of organ transplantation and biotechnology. The only way to stop this dehumanizing agenda is to take notice and push back before it is too late. Some things should ever and always be unthinkable.