About Playing God

I haven't seen too many people talking about this piece in the Sunday Times Magazine about Memorial Hospital in New Orleans and the claims that some medical personnel performed euthanasia on patients who they felt wouldn't survive evacuation after Hurricane Katrina. It's a heartbreaking story, filled with complexities and judgment calls and I'm very glad that I wasn't in the position of making decisions in that situation. Nor will I even begin to sit back and second-guess the people who were there. It's too easy to imagine that in an impossible situation, you will be the hero who stands for moral certainty. I remember that when the narrator from Tadeusz Borowski's "Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber" asks "are we good people?" the character Henri responds with "Why ask stupid questions?" Being able to debate niceties is a luxury that is often set aside in emergency situations when you have incomplete information and the sinking feeling that you have been abandoned by the outside world.

In three separate cases between pages 15 and 18 in the article--it's a long one--someone says the equivalent of "leave it up to God" or "who gave [the doctors] the right to play God," and I think that this is a matter that really deserves a stronger answer than it ever receives. The statement is almost always made by someone close to the deceased, and it's an accusation leveled at someone they believe is responsible for that person's death--God, in their view is the modern stand-in for Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life. To take another's life is to assume God's position (though if God were omnipotent, why He wouldn't interfere unless it was part of his plan is never explained).

But here's the thing. We interfere all the time. The practice of medicine is an interference in the natural order of life and death (and glad I am that we have it). The moment you put yourself or a loved one in the hands of a medical professional, you have, in effect, given them the power to "play God," haven't you? The extreme version of this belief is the one held by some Christian sects who refuse to seek any medical treatment, believing that they can be healed by prayer. They put their faith in God to heal them--they also often die, which would seem to prove my point. (There's also a post lurking in here about how "natural" doesn't always mean "good," but one thing at a time.)

But most people don't think it through this carefully, I suspect. What they're trying to say is "you have overstepped your authority and broken the trust we placed in you," and that may well be a legitimate charge. The Grand Jury who heard the case against these medical professionals felt a charge of second degree murder wasn't warranted, though there are civil cases still pending. Ask OJ Simpson how much an acquittal matters in those. But we don't often say "you're playing God" to politicians who decide that the nation must spill blood for some often unstated and falsely argued cause, and that always results in much greater destruction of human life.

I guess it's because of proximity. We might know the doctors, and the patient may be a friend or lover, a parent, sibling, child, or other relative, while those war dead are people with strange names, speaking a language we don't understand. They are images, caricatures, representations of something we've been told is frightening. They don't have names like ours--their names sound harsh on our ears, dissonant, alien. And yet if we hold an image of God as the one who determines the end of life, Atropos with her shears, then anyone who cries out for war is playing God to a far greater degree than any doctor in a hopeless situation who gives a dying person an overdose of morphine to ease them out of this life ever can.

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