Bioethikos: Bringing Life to Bioethics

Archive for April, 2012


Music and Memories

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Music may play an amazing role in triggering the memory of elderly patients, and patients suffering from dementia.  The following is excerpted from the description of the documentary, “Alive Inside,” to be released April 18, 2012.

Alive Inside investigates … the power music has to awaken deeply locked memories. The film follows Dan Cohen, a social worker, who decides on a whim to bring iPods to a nursing home.  To his and the staff’s surprise, many residents suffering from memory loss seem to “awaken” when they are able to listen to music from their past.  With great excitement, Dan turns to renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, and we follow them both as we investigate the mysterious way music functions inside our brains and our lives.

“Alive Inside” focuses on one man’s journey, but it raises many deep questions about what it means to still be Alive Inside. It questions when we stop being human, and what it takes to re-start a life that has faded away. It asks questions about how we see our elderly, and how we are going to treat an epidemic of these degenerative diseases.

In the movie, Dr. Oliver Sacks is heard talking about Henry, a patient who suffers from dementia:

We first see Henry, inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive, and almost un-alive.  Then he is given an iPod containing his favorite music…Immediately he lights up.  His face assumes expression. His eyes open wide.  He starts to sing and to rock, and to move his arms. He is animated by the music.

Later Dr. Sacks continues:

With this beautiful new technology you can have all the music which is significant for you in something as big as a matchbox…I think this may be very, very important in helping to animate, organize and bring a sense of identity to those who are out of it otherwise.  Music will bring them back into…their own personhood, their own memories, their own autobiographies.

You can watch a clip from “Alive Inside” here:

Music may be a tool in helping us treat our elderly with dignity and compassion.

(contributed by Dr. Sharon Christman, Department of Nursing)

Thinking the Unthinkable

Monday, April 2nd, 2012 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Two philosophers from Australia (University of Melbourne) have proposed a new term for an old concept: “after-birth abortion.” By this, they mean the taking of a newborn baby’s life, even if the infant is healthy, if social or economic factors make the child’s presence a hardship for the parents. Here is the abstract of their paper, published in the distinguished Journal of Medical Ethics:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

As unsettling (OK, horrifying) as their idea is, there is nothing new here. Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer and his colleague Helga Kuhse proposed the infanticide of handicapped infants back in 1985, in their well-known book, Should the Baby Live? However, there are two significant differences in this latest proposal: 1) The authors extend the moral permission of killing newborns to all babies, not just the disabled; and 2) They propose the euphemistic phrase “after-birth abortion” to make the act seem a bit more acceptable.

The idea behind all this is a curious inversion of a life-affirming ethic. Francis Schaeffer, in Whatever Happened to the Human Race? once wrote of the moral equivalence of a valued newborn and its status just “10 minutes” earlier, i.e., in the womb. Clearly, he wrote, no one could claim that the moral worth of a baby changes just because of its location (e.g., in the womb as opposed to out of it). That millions of Americans intuitively understand this logic is clear: the overwhelming majority opposed partial-birth abortion before it was made illegal.

The inversion is this: Singer and his philosophical progeny agree with Schaeffer that there is no essential moral difference between the unborn and the newborn. But then they claim that, since abortion (on their view) is morally licit, infanticide must be as well. Then they sanitize it by naming it “after-birth abortion.”

Another victory for utilitarianism. Heaven help us.

Full-text of article in the Journal of Medical Ethics (February, 2012)