The cost of ethics

Published 3:07 pm Saturday, July 18, 2015

by Andrew Book

In much of the world today, we enjoy lifespans that far exceed anything that women and men could have hoped for in antiquity. We still face many hurdles in medical treatment, but the number of diseases and conditions we have discovered how to heal or treat is truly amazing. We owe a large debt to modern medicine, and it is no surprise that many people feel compelled to give to research funding organizations such as the American Cancer Society, March of Dimes and many others. As we have seen and experienced the power of medicine, we are excited with the possibilities for further breakthroughs to extend the quality and length of life.

The challenge is that medical research is long, hard work. Some of the most important breakthroughs have come on accident (Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered by accident as a result of contamination in a lab.), while others have come through the laborious efforts of many committed men and women.

The challenge of finding treatments that have good potential is made exponentially larger as researchers are required to work with non-human subjects. It is only after years of development and positive results can the researchers hope to be able to begin a clinical study with people as the test subjects.

Researchers seek to find ways to work with people (or at least with human tissue and cells) earlier in the process in order to save time, money, and effort.

Some of these efforts have been above board, while others, such as Nazi experimentation on victims held in concentration camps, are universally condemned.

But here is the uncomfortable reality: the more access researchers have to human tissue and human subjects (whether ethical or unethical), the more quickly and effectively they will be able to do their research.

All of this brings us to the big story of this week: a Planned Parenthood executive was caught on video discussing the transfer of the organs and body parts from aborted babies. Planned Parenthood has the practice, at least in some instances, of performing abortions in specific manners in order to avoid damaging certain organs so they can be passed along (for a fee) to researchers.

Planned Parenthood’s response to the video has been to claim that they are simply doing their part to help further medical research by providing the “human tissue” that researchers need to push the pace of medical research.

The “human tissue” provided by Planned Parenthood may well do exactly what they say. It could be the tool needed to help a researcher unlock cancer, dementia, or diabetes. It could help develop the next great drug or discover how to overcome HIV/AIDS. But, are we willing to pay the ethical price for that discovery? Whether you find this story merely uncomfortable or truly repulsive is probably rooted in whether you understand the babies being aborted as people or simply “developing tissue,” but the ethical dilemma is similar: are we willing to use others without their consent in order to help ourselves?

When I was working as an animal care technician caring for research animals, I saw firsthand how some researchers were willing to bend, stretch and break the ethical rules for treatment of animals because those rules got in the way of their research.

Part of my job was to report those violations. At the time it confused me to see researchers who were working to improve human health would not feel constrained by ethical considerations, but I have since realized how all-consuming medical research can become — to the point that some researchers are willing to go to any lengths to solve the dilemma in front of them.

The challenge of ethics is realizing that there is a cost to pay for ethical behavior. If we say “no” to using tissue from aborted babies in research, that could mean that a new treatment is developed a year later.

People could die as a result of that decision. Is it worth the possible loss of life to develop a culture which declares that we are not willing to prosper at the expense of another? Ethics may well get in the way of medical progress — that is the cost of ethics — but a slower, more ethical process will create the kind of society we need to be while still allowing us to continue to address the medical concerns that face us today.

Every ethical choice we make comes at a cost. Jesus told the crowds of would-be disciples that they needed to count the cost before they commit to follow him (Luke 14).

The same is true for us today. We need to consider whether we are really willing to have a cost associated with our ethics and our commitment to follow Jesus. It is not just ethical medical research that carries a cost: ethical shopping (at stores that care for their employees and those who manufacture their goods) will usually cost more, honesty in business means you will not manipulate people to your own advantage, loving your family and neighbor means you cannot just use them to meet your own needs. There is a cost for ethical living at every level, but it is a cost I am more than willing to pay because the greatest reward is found in living a life that is pleasing to God and a blessing to those around us.

Many of the ethical challenges facing us today are difficult. As much as we long for clear, black-and-white decisions, much of the world today is gray. I hope and pray that you will go out and tackle a gray world with a commitment to live as a godly, loving person regardless of what you receive from it.

If you are looking for a community of people committed to living for God who recognize there are not always easy answers, come join us at Courtland United Methodist Church, but wherever you are, may you choose to live ethically!

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or