The present health-care situation reflects the blessing and the curse of technology. By technology I refer not simply to machines, but to the complex, interlocking system in which we use our presumed knowledge from the sciences in an effort to control our environment, including human beings, for purposes of efficiency.
Some of us learned this view of technology from French theologian and teacher Jacques Ellul. From this perspective, society itself functions much like a machine in which all parts depend upon all other parts for efficiency.
Using our knowledge and our instruments, we have increased survival rates on both ends of life. But this advance has come at a price. Some premature infants develop serious birth-related health problems, and many older adults have age-related problems that require extensive medical costs. Moreover, the ability to postpone dying and to cure major illnesses has been available primarily to those with economic, political or other social influence.
The first two chapters of Genesis portray human beings as having been created to care for the world on God’s behalf. Disobedience, therefore, could be either by attempting to be more than human or by rejecting responsibility altogether. Every scientific or technological undertaking confronts us with the same possibilities – to push blindly ahead or to unduly restrain ourselves.
Complicating our dilemma is the fact that no technology is ethically neutral — depending for its own character upon the moral character of its use or its user — but is ambiguous, carrying both positive and negative consequences. For example, a plane carrying an organ across the continent to save a life would leave a trail of pollution if Jesus himself were the pilot.
And we will continue to strive for even greater efficiency. There is no turning back. After all, we tell ourselves that our goal is helping people.
An emerging question now is whether to attempt restructuring the entire health-care system or to work on the current system’s most critical parts, leaving other problems until later. Whichever position one takes, three things should be kept in mind.
- History is filled with ideas that looked good on paper but did not work in practice. Prohibition laws are a good example.
- Any solution to a problem brings its own problems. Some critics recently have asserted that the Church Committee legislation governing the CIA back in the 1970s created some of the current intelligence problems. But to have enacted no legislation also would have left us with problems stemming from inaction. Similarly, any health-care legislation, no matter how good or how bad, will bring its own problems. That is the nature of technology.
- With regard to health-care “rationing,” many have correctly pointed out that rationing exists already. Moreover, it is rationing based on survival of the fittest, which is defined by economic ability or by political or social influence. It seems inevitable that a combination of the increasing gap between health need and resources and the technological quest for efficiency will lead eventually to calls for a more rational approach to rationing.
If so, on what would rationing be based and who would be in charge? I fear the answer will be based on who is considered most valuable and most expendable for society. If so, human beings will have come to be regarded as mere consumer goods.
What are the implications of both the present situation and the possible future for people of faith? All major world religions teach, to one degree or another, love of neighbor. Jesus even taught love of enemy, which the Apostle Paul interpreted as feeding and clothing the hungry, naked enemy.
How can people of faith embody this love in health care, putting others first in a system in which bureaucracy automatically closes many options that might be available in a less complex system?
Without exhausting the possibilities, I offer two suggestions: one simple, one not so simple.
1) We can support legislation that seems to hold effective solutions although that legislation might increase our own taxes.
2) If preparing to receive transplant of an organ that someone else needs, we can defer to that person. If we could afford the operation, but the other person cannot, we can pay the expenses for that person.
Sounds absurd? Well, as Kierkegaard observed, genuine faith is absurd. And so is genuine love.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University and theologian-in-residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn. This column appeared first in the Washington Post and is used here by permission.
Gene Davenport (1936-2018) was Professor Emeritus of Religion at Lambuth University and a columnist for The Jackson Sun.