The concept of Pagan ethics is getting a good airing; as a community we’re ready to think about our responsibilities as well as our rights. But I do wonder how, or even if, we approach medical issues that other religions struggle with, things like fertility, quality of human life and the artificial manipulation of genes. Individual choice is part of the post-modern mindset which Paganism has most effectively embraced and of course no matter what any religious authorities decide on most individual religious people go their own way, choosing to have or not have assisted conception, abortions, genetic treatments for conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy and so on. Their religious leaders and societies have the debate, understandings are generated but followers generally ignore them. Beyond vegitarianism and in the US, the abortion debate (based in politics much more than religion) we're yet to really get going.
News of Ciaran Finn-Lynch and his life-saving trachea transplant grown from his own stem cells reminds us that medical science is both exciting and moving at a speed that may often be beyond what we can keep up with. New guidelines around the use of genetic tests for children demonstrates that philosophy may not move as fast as science or the free market but is profoundly necessary to protect the individual, family, society and the most vulnerable from the excesses of both. Freedom of choice for the parent has, in this situation and others, overwhelmed the rights of the child. Post modernism and raw capitalism are ironically close relatives.
So where might Paganisms start with a deasophy of assisted conception? Do we start with ‘An it harm none . . .” or the damage that is being done to the Earth by the unsustainable numbers of humans draining the basic resource of water? We already use medical technologies like surgery, chemotherapy and antibiotics so why not AI and IVF? Where do our responsibilities as a human community intersect with our individual human rights? Might we embrace infertility not only as part of the natural world that is as worthy of respect as other aspects of fertility, as much a demonstration of balance in nature as flood and fire but now also a much needed natural gift to the Earth? Might we forgo or limit reproduction as part of a sustainable relationship with the planet? This might be the most pointed definition of ‘Bioethics.’
Vegans have long experience of coping with the ethics of animal-derived medicines and treatments born from vivisection but what about the ethics of human research? Are Pagans who put themselves forward for medical research honouring animals or dishonouring their own bodies? How does being paid for the risk effect the ethics?
And since we don’t consider our children Pagan how do we make decisions about our children’s health? Is there a uniquely Pagan way or do we just tag along with our friends?
There are often no answers to these kinds of questions but in attempting to answer them we discover what is fundamentally important to us and why, not just viscerally but materially. Speaking about inter-relatedness and earth consciousness is one thing; but how do we relate to the realities of disability, poverty, mental illness?
Obstetric and neonatal care and life expectancy has improved so radically that there are already a greater number of people with learning disabilities than there were a decade ago and this number is expected to rise.
In the UK most people who have learning disabilites live with their families and 40,000 live in institutions. Although a tiny minority of these institutions are excellent (measured by the kinds of relationships you would want for yourself rather than a managerial tick box exercise) most people in institutions are not treated as well as they might be. Here are some cheery statistics:
• Four times as many people with learning disabilities die of preventable causes as people in the general population.
• People with learning disabilities are 58 times more likely to die before the age of 50 than the general population
• Almost one in three people with learning disabilities say they do not have any contact with friends. One in twenty have no friends and do not see anyone from their family
• 40 per cent of people say they would like more say in what goes on in their everyday life
• Nearly one in three people say they did not feel safe using public transport
• Nearly one in three people with learning disabilities said someone had been rude or offensive to them in the last year. In most cases, the person who bullied them was a stranger
• Only one in four women have ever had a cervical smear
• More than one in ten people with learning disabilities say they never feel confident.
People with learning disabilities have a right to life. They can have rich and fulfilled lives and improve the lives of people without learning difficulties simply by being present in them. The reality is that most will die young and live as second-class citizens. Like the elderly and mentally ill they are too often used as a form of employment scheme for people who would not be able to work in an environment where clients can make use of a meaningful complaints process.
How might a Pagan ethic approach this situation? People who detest the meat industry can become vegan and have an economic effect, but how do we respond to a reality that is located between ethics and economics, between total expediency (involuntary euthanasia) and a total social revolution that values fire-fighters, teachers and people with disabilities as much as CEO’s and celebrities? We know it’s wrong to euthanize people with disabilities (Why? Just because Nazi’s did it? Is there a Pagan take on right to life, voluntary and involuntary euthanasia, quality of life?) but we are, in truth, killing them off through direct and indirect neglect and many will live lives filled with casual, catastrophic and everyday abuse.
Some of these issues are addressed directly in Starhawks' Truth or Dare whose understanding of power dynamics have been taken up by academics and practitioners. If Paganisms are more than Reclaiming what are the other Pagan ways of approaching modern medical ethics?
The temptation is to look for ultimate answers where there may only be fragmentary ones if any exist at all. But engaging with the questions, examining reality as it is rather than as we wish it was; developing new and decidedly Pagan understandings of what, why and how we value the Apparent world (as opposed and in relation to our colossal valuing of the Otherworlds) and the people in it (as opposed and in relation to the concepts of animals, Land and Nature) demonstrates a readiness to be taken seriously as part of that world.
Start here with a feminist, relationship ethic and please feel free to contribute your own favourite
Pagan medical ethic pages and sources.