Shifting Standards on Medical Ethics

Article excerpt

Those trying to ram through the appointment of Henry W. Foster Jr. as surgeon general say the abortions he performed and his involuntary sterilization of retarded women are (in the case of abortion) or were (in the case of the sterilization) "accepted medical procedure" at the time.

This reasoning is what is wrong with our culture. It reflects our spiritual malnutrition, which has led to many of the social problems we now lament.

Even a spokesperson for the National Organization for Women was shocked when she heard about Foster's sterilization procedures. "I'm appalled," said Diane Welsh, president of the New York City chapter of NOW. "NOW is an organization that's for choice for women in any reproductive health matter, and we're utterly opposed to anything resembling forced sterilization."

(Does this mean NOW can be expected to withdraw its support of Foster? No, because abortion is more important to NOW than forced sterilization.)

In defending the administration's choice of Foster and his sterilizations of the retarded, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said, "Medicine has changed. . . . In the '60s (Foster did) a procedure that was legal at the time."

She is certainly right about medicine changing. Throughout most of the profession's history, a doctor swore an oath never to perform or assist in an abortion. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that abortion could not be made illegal, Hippocrates was rewritten along with the law.

We've seen before what happens when medicine bases change on shifting moral standards rather than absolutes. The eugenics movement came of age in the 1930s. Its practice of ensuring sound offspring was effectively applied in Germany.

When the Prussian Council on Health met on July 2, 1932, its goal was to relate eugenics to public welfare. (Isn't that what the Dr. Fosters of our time do with the "unfit" and the unborn?) Members who reported on the meeting said, "The legal approval of a strict eugenic sterilization (not castration), under suitable controls, is demanded. …