In their book Reclaiming the Body, authors Brian Volck, M.D. and Joel Shuman, two individuals intimately involved with the medical community, consider what it is to be a patient navigating the modern medical structure: ‘In our weakest moments, we discover a troubling dependence upon a group of relative strangers whose presence in our lives is mediated by a complex and usually faceless bureaucracy, and that dependence frightens us.
I recently heard a question that cuts to the core of this present-day depiction of the patient-caregiver relationship: ‘What exactly does the medical profession profess?’ Certainly the question implies that something ought to be professed, or that there should be something worth professing in medicine, as I think, any medical professional would most likely argue. Brian Volck, a pediatrician, offers an answer that is hardly satisfying: the medical profession actually professes ‘precious little’. If this is in fact the case, something is very wrong with the current medical profession; and medical practitioners, as well as their patients, ought to reconsider those purposes and principles that drive modern medicine. In Reclaiming the Body , Volck and co-author/ethicist Joel Shuman examine modern medicine’s ‘professions’ from a perspective that aims to offer the medical consumer new protocols of ethical thinking and conduct.
The word ‘profession’ invokes religious significance. And it is the idea that medicine and theology could be interrelated that motivates Reclaiming the Body. The authors assert that our theology, that is to say, what we believe about God, affects our beliefs about medicine, our bodies, and our mortality. And if the relationships between God, patient, and doctor have become muddled in the present age, it is largely owed to an ‘individualistic North American culture’ and the ‘technologized profession’ which have given way to a consumer-driven focus, as characterized by concepts like ‘patient autonomy’ and ‘consumer demand.’ The authors contend that the medical establishment, in its current state, is an unsuitable place for an individual who must make life-altering decisions and is often forced to do so alone (under the principle of informed consent). They cite that the world of health care is a strange created world ‘in which those wishing to benefit from medicine’s power are expected to live in medicine’s world and obey its rules.’
Shuman and Volck portray medicine as a power within ‘a parallel universe,’ but they are not after the medical powers to change. Rather, they extend an invitation to Christians, in particular, to engage with medicine thoughtfully and responsibly. In so doing, they reframe the discussion to take into account theological claims on the body. Based on a fundamental theological understanding that the body exists and thrives in community, their conclusions for how one should think about the practice and ethics of medicine are derived from a community-based perspective. They point out that we must consider the community (however small or large) as it is impacted by medical practices, tools and techniques, rather than merely regarding an autonomous patient’s interests. Further, they suggest that a patient would be better equipped to confront the medical powers from within a community, and in particular, a church community. As they develop their thesis, their discussion ranges from concerns in the practice of hospitality, reproduction and parenthood, medical ethics (eugenics, caring for the poor, biotechnologies), bodily perfection and enhancement, and suffering and mortality. Without question, a solitary individual, who is what the health care community seeks to empower at the moment, is not equipped to make sound ethical decisions when it comes to hefty bioethical issues. Rather, an engaged, informed community should be part of the equation. It is in the interest of encouraging debate and ongoing discussion, and with the hope that human dignity would be valued in an increasingly technological age, that a community-minded approach to medicine would be most welcome.
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Lani Rosa is a graduate of Indiana University, where she earned her B.S. in Economics and Public Policy and B.A. in Spanish. Since relocating to the Bay Area from Kentucky she has worked in areas of microeconomic development, database consulting, and accounting within the non-profit and private sectors. She lives in Emeryville, CA with her husband, Evan, where she enjoys reading and baking pies.
Evan Rosa is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley, where he earned B.A.’s in Philosophy and Linguistics. He currently works as a communication consultant, and enjoys playing and writing music, an earthy cup of coffee and a good surf session. He and his wife Lani live in Emeryville, CA.
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