Lessons and Carols


Every Christmas Eve, King’s College in Cambridge holds their “Lessons and Carols” service, where a “lesson” from Scripture is read, followed by the singing of carols or hymns. This popular service is repeated in many churches and universities. Here at “Everyday Bioethics” we try to communicate the ethical lessons we can learn from the stories making headlines every day. Without further ado, here are some of the key headlines and lessons of 2011.

First, some positive news. A number of adult stem cell treatments are showing early success in clinical trials. In particular, treatments for heart disease and inflammatory conditions are promising.[1] This past summer a man’s life was saved with a transplant of the first synthetic windpipe, coated with stem cells taken from his own bone marrow. We can rejoice that ethical sources of stem cells are proving to be effective. In contrast, the first clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury has shut down its operations without disclosing any results.            

This past year a radio station in Canada sparked outrage after offering listeners a chance to “win a baby” through a prize of IVF treatment.[2] Just recently a surrogacy lawyer was sentenced for participating in a baby-selling scam where surrogates were impregnated before they were matched with prospective parents.[3] While these may be the most blatant examples of the commodification of reproduction, we must be on guard against any attempt to diminish the value of nascent human life. Children are not mere commodities to be sold in the marketplace, but precious gifts to be welcomed and cherished.

The death of Jack Kevorkian this past summer reignited debate over his legacy to the medical profession and the morality of assisted suicide.[4] His argument for the legalization of assisted suicide presented a false dichotomy between the choice to die in great pain and suffering or dying peacefully at the hands of a compassionate physician. Hospitals are continuing to improve access to palliative medicine and hospice support to treat not only the patient’s pain, but the whole person. We can remain committed to help patients die a peaceful and painless death, without violating their God-given dignity.

This past year, hospitals faced a shortage of over 200 medicines critical for cancer treatment, surgery, and emergency medicine. This unprecedented crisis has brought to light the complexities of this systemic problem. Here, we see the intersection of manufacturing and quality control issues, unprofitable orphan drugs, the consolidation of drug manufacturers, and FDA oversight. This calls for thinking about drugs and the pharmaceutical industry from a public health perspective.

The Christmas Eve carols and hymns sung at King’s College may change, but the lessons are the same. While the bioethical headlines might change, our commitment to upholding ethical principles that support the value and dignity of each human life should not. And that’s a “lesson” for all of us.

[1] Toni Clarke and Deena Beasley, “Insight: Stem Cell Therapy Poised to Come in from the Cold,” Reuters, December 4, 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/04/us-insight-stem-cell-therapy-idUSTRE7B30FH20111204 (accessed December 8, 2011).

[2] Sian Griffiths, “‘Win a Baby’ Competition Criticised by Fertility Groups,” The Guardian, October 7, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/07/win-baby-competition-canada-radio?newsfeed=true (accessed December 8, 2011).

[3] Bonnie Rochman, “Baby-Selling Scam Focuses Attention of Surrogacy,” TIME, August 19, 2011 http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/19/baby-selling-scam-focuses-attention-on-surrogacy/ (accessed December 8, 2011).

[4] Carolyne Krupa, “Dr. Kevorkian Leaves Mixed Medical Legacy,” American Medical News, June 20, 2011, http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2011/06/20/prsa0620.htm (accessed December 8, 2011).


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