Most, if not all, of the ethical problems in the world of health care come from a failure to grasp that health care as an interaction between human persons. Health care, as the name suggests, is the act of one person (or persons) caring for the health of another person (or persons). Health care gets twisted and becomes ethically compromised when this fundamental reality is forgotten or its implications go unrecognized. Whether we are talking about ethical questions regarding the beginnings of human life, end of life decision making, determinations about death and transplantation of vital organs, patient privacy, free and informed consent, or any other area of health care practice, we go astray precisely inasmuch as we fail to appreciate the human personhood of all involved. This failure can be called “dehumanization.”
We believe as Catholic Christians that human persons are created by God in His own image, endowed with a God-like capacity for rational understanding and free will and destined for an eternal life beyond the limits of the merely material world. So let us consider the consequences of this understanding of the human person on the way we think about and practice health care. For, if “dehumanization” is the source of the problem, “humanization” must be the solution.
One way of humanizing our understanding and practice of health care is to recognize the persons for whose health we care as “other selves.” That means acknowledging that the other person is a person in the same way that I am. He or she has the same nature and dignity that I do, the same capacities for understanding and free choice, the same God-given purpose and destiny. This is fundamentally true regardless of the person’s state of health or quality of life. The person receiving health care is always compromised or diminished in some way. He is usually less physically capable than his caregivers and is often less mentally capable as well. This can be because of old age or young age or the effects of illness. Nonetheless, the basic equality of every human person remains. Our nature, rationality and purpose are the same. In the light of Christian faith, the same insight is confirmed and elevated. In the words of St. Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Seeing fellow human beings as “other selves” also means identifying what is good for another person with what is good for me. Here we understand other self as meaning “another myself.” When I recognize a fellow human being as an other self in this way, I want what is good for that self just as I want what is good for myself. That is called love. It is the love that we all have, to some degree at least, for our parents and children and family and friends. We want what is good for them like we want what is good for ourselves. To see every human being as an other self in this way means expanding and intensifying that love. It means following the golden rule of treating all others as we ourselves want to be treated. It requires that we open our hearts in love for all persons and not just some. It calls us to the largeness of spirit that places every self on par with myself.
As Christians, we can go even further. Jesus showed his love for us by giving his life for our salvation and tells us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Jesus loves us not only by placing our good as on par with his own, but by choosing our good in preference to his own. He calls us to imitate that love by seeing in others the very person of Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40).
It is Jesus himself who applies this teaching to the practice of health care: “I was ill and you cared for me” (Matt 25:36). By the grace of God, may we be found worthy to hear these words when the Son of Man comes in his glory.