Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter Tuesday

David Aaronovich of The Times has taken on the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, for his views on the embryology research bill currently making its way through Parliament. You can read it at The Times Online.
With the sermon here.

This makes a nice change from ecclesial politics, but seems strangely old fashioned to anyone who has lived in the States for the past decade or more.

I have read three books recently that have made me more aware than ever of the politics of medicine, --also something that will not surprise anyone who has followed the debates about health care and health insurance in this country. Ken Follet’s World Without End makes much of the tension between the university educated monks of the 14th century and the careful medical observations of a nun who really knew better what spreads disease and what cures it. We wind up quite irritated with the ‘experts’ who cannot make their case other than by pointing to their credentials, making spurious arguments about the way things have always been understood, and putting down the opposition with slurs and innuendos (pre-eminently in this case, the accusation of witchcraft.)

Piero Gambaccini, a radiologist from Florence has written a fun book called Moutebanks and Medicasters: A History of Italian Charlatans from the Middle Ages to the Present.(McFarland, 2004). This was translated by his wife, Bettie Gage Lippit, who grew up in Atlanta and who gave me the book after the funeral of her mother, Bettie Holland. I have only now picked it up. One thing that Gambaccini makes clear is the very thin line between art and science when it comes to medicine in the past and medicine today. And the same point again in The Lost World of James Smithson by Heather Ewing (Bloomsbury, 2007) as politics began to look for some kind of evidence of science behind scientific or medical claims. I had previously no idea that Smithson, while buried in Washington near the Smithsonian Museum that bears his name, was caught up in the secular advantages of revolution and left his estate to the U. S. out of admiration. Today we have to worry about the purity of the ‘scientific’ process by which medicines and other medical inventions are approved for use. With so much money at stake we still have to make sure that data is not falsified and inconvenient truths are not ignored. Some years ago, Alicia Mundy, a former parishioner in Alexandria wrote a chilling expose of the whole drama around the heart drug Fen-Phen called Dispensing with the Truth which is only one such story, picked up in fiction by John le Carre in The Constant Gardener, also made into a film.

The embryo research debate (not unrelated to the stem cell conversation) has all the possibilities involved: pure research, potential medical advances, large amounts of money at stake and the ethical issues about the status of an embryo in the eyes of God. My own view is that while there is some danger of degrading the way in which we value human life, there can be (and should be) safeguards in the research process, particularly around how the embryos are procured. As for lessening the value of human life: In what do you have to believe to make the deaths in Iraq of 4,000 American troops in addition to countless civilians and members of allied forces anything other than ‘wasted’?

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