We are most deeply asleep at the switch when we fancy we control any switches at all.
— Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
A week ago, the front page of our newspaper carried an article about controlled medications. During the pandemic, doctors were allowed to prescribe pretty much everything via telemedicine without an in-person appointment. Unsurprisingly, this led to unethical prescribing practices and subsequent rising addiction rates. The Drug Enforcement Agency has decided to return to pre-pandemic criteria for drugs like Adderall and Vicodin.
While I’m not normally enthralled by DEA policy, I was intrigued that terminally ill people were protesting the DEA’s changing policy. People choosing to end their life through medical aid in dying need a doctor to prescribe the necessary medication to “die peacefully in their sleep” (according to the Compassion and Choices website). Pandemic prescribing rules made the process much easier, and they aren’t eager to return to normal.
I had no idea that “medical aid in dying” (also called physician-assisted death) is perfectly legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia. When I started googling, I read that in recent years multiple prominent medical groups (American Medical Association, family physicians, hospice) have moved from “officially opposed” to “officially neutral” or “affirming” to the practice of medical aid in dying.
I grew up hearing about the nefarious Dr. Jack Kevorkian (aka Dr. Death) who shocked society when he unapologetically performed physician- assisted death. He went to jail for eight years. Views about ending one’s life have certainly changed.
The very same day, I came across a magazine article on the future of fertility. The tagline read, “A new crop of biotech startups wants to revolutionize human reproduction.”
You’ve heard of IVF, in-vitro fertilization, but what about IVG? No? Well, allow me.
In-vitro gametogenesis is when a nonreproductive cell (like a skin cell) is turned into a gamete (egg or sperm cell). It was done with mice in Japan in 2016. Cells from the tip of a mouse’s tail eventually became 10 little mice pups that were described as “grossly normal.”
Both medical aid in dying and IVG are disconcerting. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of deciding when and how human life begins and ends. I’ve always considered this to be God’s purview.
Then again, it was God who gave humans the capacity “to be like God,” as the serpent in the garden put it. Ever since Eve was gifted with childbirth and Cain killed Abel, humans have been able to create and end life by their own will and ability.
God also allowed for humans to learn about their physical bodies. Humans continually discover and develop medical breakthroughs. Antibiotics, organ transplants and pacemakers have all extended life expectancy. At the other end of life, we now have birth control and sperm banks, not to mention in-vitro fertilization. By embracing these things, we are tinkering with the natural order of things. We are deciding when to give and take life.
People often say, “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” This sentiment is true, but practically speaking it’s pretty pointless.
All of human existence tells us: If we can, and it will make money, we definitely will.
IVG will happen. DNA manipulation will become more sophisticated. Artificial intelligence will continue to redefine what being human even means.
It would be a great deal easier if human life was merely a clump of cells we could play around with like a LEGO set. But we know it is not.
Our cells are filled with the breath and image of the Creator. It is not insignificant that God — Immanuel, God with us — experienced both a human birth and a human death. Both are sacred.
These are ethical conversations. It isn’t ever “just science” or politics or business.
People freeze embryos or get abortions. They put in pacemakers or feeding tubes. They choose to refuse treatment or decide to quit eating and drinking to speed up death. You may find some of those choices to be un-ethical. I certainly do.
However, I think we are most like Jesus when we focus on people more than on our moral judgments. People, in their panoply of existence, represent the life that happens between birth and death, and that is also sacred.