The invaluable Wesley J. Smith, who is now on a well-deserved vacation, posted just before he left a link to this sickening little article on the site of The Hastings Center. In the course of discussing it, Smith alerts me to something I'd never heard of before: The culture of death in medical ethics is now trying to pass itself off as "family values" in ethics.
Reading the Hastings article, I see the rhetoric. There's a reason why Socrates hated the sophists so much. I imagine they were very effective in their day and in their way. And conservatives, especially conservatives of a particular sort who regard themselves as anti-individualist, may be especially vulnerable to the kind of snake oil being peddled here.
Let me explain:
The article begins with a scenario that the author, Hilde Lindemann, overheard some fellow bioethicists discussing. Evidently this is a true story, though I can't be absolutely sure of this. In the story, a couple have a 20-year-old mentally disabled daughter. She is their only child and will never marry, and they are all upset that their family will die out with themselves. So they try to convince doctors to hyper-ovulate their mentally disabled daughter so that her eggs can be harvested, so that her eggs can be fertilized with donor sperm, so that the resulting embryo(s) could be implanted in a rented womb, so that the parents could "have" a grandchild and raise it.
There are so many things wrong with this that one hardly knows where to begin, but Lindemann's colleagues at least happened to notice that this would involve instrumentalizing the disabled daughter, using her as a mere means to an end, and putting her through an unpleasant (and even possibly dangerous) medical procedure without any benefit or indication for her, making her into a mother, and doing all of this without the least vestige of consent from her. Considering her intrinsic value as an individual (though they didn't actually use the word "intrinsic value"), it is obvious that this is unethical. And so they concluded.
Lindemann isn't happy. In fact, Lindemann says that this conclusion means that her colleagues just don't get how families work. Y'know, how individualistic of them. How Hobbesian! Don't they understand (cue suggestively waving hand motions) how families constitute this whole interconnected web? How they work together? What's the matter with these people? When they leave for work in the morning, do they just forget what it's like living in a family together and how we all make sacrifices for each other? After all, if the parents have taken care of this girl all these years, they've made sacrifices for her. Maybe it's time she made some sort of sacrifice for them, huh?
Yep. That's right. That's what it means to believe in the interconnectedness and interdependence of families, in the love and sacrifice between the generations. That's just how families work--hyperovulating their mentally disabled children so they can get grand-babies from them. Sounds like real family life to me!
This is, I say in all seriousness, like saying that cannibalism isn't so bad, because it shows the dependence of all people on one another. It is a despicable abuse of the notion of the interconnectedness of families, and it must not take in anyone else who likes to talk about the evils of individualism. There are people who like to talk about the evils of individualism who don't mean anything evil, even if I happen sometimes to disagree with them on economic issues. But this is a whole different matter altogether. Because when it comes to the treatment and use of the human body, then the value of the individual, the intrinsic value of the individual, becomes of paramount importance, and in that sense our medical ethics absolutely should be individualistic.
Smith points out that Lindemann's use of the notion of "family ethics" is not unique to her. John Hardwig (of "duty to die" fame) has this long article in which he muses about troublesome problems like the burden it puts on families if a newborn with a disability happens to live, the burden it puts on a wife if her husband with Alzheimer's happens to live, and the like. He concludes that doctors' treatment decisions should be based not on what's best for the patient (as a mere "individual," after all) but on what's ostensibly best for the family, where this includes considerations like the burden of bothersome lives.
So, let's hear it for individualism in bioethics. Everything has its place.