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    hands holding a stethoscope

    The Soul of Medicine

    By Peter Mommsen

    June 21, 2018

    Medicine, so long as you don’t need it, is a tangential part of life, just one more profession among others. Until, that is, a loved one suffers an accident or falls sick. Then, suddenly, the doctor’s findings, the lab results, and the survival statistics carry momentous importance – far more than who runs the country, who wins the World Cup, and when the polar ice caps will melt. Quite literally, it’s a matter of life or death.

    Medicine, of course, is also big business. US healthcare spending accounts for more than one sixth of GDP, five times more than is spent on defense. Doctors have been reclassified as “service providers,” and patients are “clients” to be processed with efficiency and speed. House calls, once a routine part of practice, are now often a boutique service reserved for the rich.

    Such commercialism breeds false incentives and inequalities, even in nations with healthcare systems far less profit-driven than the American one. It also has helped create tragedies like the opioid epidemic, which continues to exact a staggering toll.

    Yet despite its flaws, modern medicine is in many ways a resounding humanitarian success. Over the past century, US life expectancy has leaped by thirty years. And who can argue with the elimination of smallpox and polio, or the fact that a baby born today has only one-tenth the risk of dying in infancy as one born in 1900?

    Yet despite its flaws, modern medicine is in many ways a resounding humanitarian success.

    Past triumphs feed expectations for medicine’s future. The ability to engineer our offspring to make them smarter, more athletic, and more attractive comes nearer by the day. Will we, as the biohackers dream, figure out how to incorporate cybernetics into our bodies, gaining Superman-like powers of computation and motion? Or, as life extensionists fantasize, will we learn to reverse aging – and perhaps even seize the prize of immortality?

    Freakish, yes, but there’s no reason that today’s fringe obsessions can’t become tomorrow’s mainstream causes. After all, they fit neatly into the widely held belief that medical technology will thrust constantly forward, each advance just one more step in the upward march of history. Such hopes are the beating heart of a new book by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now, in which he uses impressive statistics to argue that the world has been getting ever better since the Enlightenment and will likely continue to do so into the future.

    This optimistic story is persuasive. It’s also thoroughly secular and materialist. In this way of thinking, our temporal wellbeing – the kind measured by social scientists – counts for everything, while our spiritual wellbeing counts not at all (unless it brings quantifiable benefits). God is made superfluous: according to this view, even if a supreme being does exist, he/she/it is irrelevant to securing the things that really matter – namely health, wealth, safety, and the freedom to do as we wish.

    This optimistic story is persuasive. It’s also thoroughly secular and materialist.

    But if these are the ultimate measure of what’s good for humans, it’s unclear why parents shouldn’t be allowed to genetically engineer elite children, or why euthanasia shouldn’t be offered to anyone tired of life, or why a willing patient shouldn’t be able to have his healthy legs amputated because he self-identifies as a cripple – a “treatment” that some medical ethicists actually support. In such ways, technologized medicine, which was developed to heal and sustain life, ends up warping and killing it instead.

    What we need is a vision of how medicine might serve the good of the whole human person: the body’s health, yes, but also the health of that “piece of divinity in us” described by the seventeenth-century physician Sir Thomas Browne. It’s this divine spark that makes a child born with only part of a brain the equal in dignity and worth to a Harvard professor. It’s this that explains why a life marked by ill health, poverty, danger, and constraint can still be a fulfilled one, as saints like the Beguines have shown. This is the reason why suffering, though evil in itself, can end up being so fruitful.

    We need love and reverence for humans as they are, not humans as technology may someday engineer them to be. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself.”

    We need love and reverence for humans as they are.

    Jesus, the healer from Nazareth, showed what it means to love the imperfect, the frail, the average, those whom no one would mistake for a designer baby. He commanded his followers to care in practical ways for “the least of these my brethren,” whether by comforting the sick or offering the hungry food and the thirsty drink.

    The glory of the medical profession is that it is dedicated to these works of mercy. In today’s money-driven healthcare industry, such tasks are often poorly rewarded. Yet they’re at the heart of medicine’s original mission.

    My mother, a family doctor, often used to point out the power of small actions in caring for a person: adjusting a pillow, clearing away a tray, making a joke on the way out. Such little things don’t eliminate pain or abolish dying. But they have lasting value: they are foretastes of the day promised in the Book of Revelation, when God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” These are the things that make up the soul of medicine.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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