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Medical innovations carry ethical challenges

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Innovative technologies may promise startling improvements in health care but may also carry huge challenges to ethics and culture. 

So said Jesuit Father Kevin FitzGerald, cancer researcher and bioethicist at Georgetown University, during a presentation to the Seniors Club of St. John the Beloved Church in McLean Jan. 16. 

"(Health care technology) is an area which in the future is going to expand as far as the eye can see," said Father FitzGerald, who is also a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture. 

"The Catholic tradition has a tremendous role to play in forming (society's) ethical consensus." 

As examples of new technologies, Father FitzGerald cited gene therapies that are capable of eliminating some forms of inherited deafness and of suppressing the effects of the genetic mutation that causes trisomy 21, or Down syndrome.  

Not all sufferers want the supposed benefit, the priest noted. Some deaf persons fear the loss of the community that supports them, which includes educational institutions and a deaf language. Some families with children with Down syndrome — who are often short in stature with distinctive eye and head shapes, and cognitive issues — won't accept any therapy that might alter the sunny dispositions for which Down sufferers are known. 

They are, Father FitzGerald noted, the "most loving, the most caring, the most accepting human beings on the planet." 

An answer can be found in the Catholic ethical tradition that emphasizes a "fully human approach" to treating patients, he said. 

"The point is to come up with medical care for all aspects of the human body — psychological, social, spiritual," he said. In practice, that may mean slowing down the implementation of some medical technology, while a "global conversation" considers its impact and unforeseen consequences. 

A self-described "geek," Father FitzGerald, 61, felt guided toward the priesthood as he pursued a major in biology at Cornell University in the 1970s. Science, he noted, lacked the "moral compass" he sought. The Jesuits, under whom both his parents studied while at Fordham University in New York City, supplied that. 

"Science doesn’t scare us (Catholics)," he said. "It's just another way to explore the marvelous gift we have been given by God." 

His life's work has taught Father FitzGerald to look to the healing powers of both technology and simple Christian kindness. The latter, he has found, is a cure that, unlike some technical innovations, works on all manner of patients. 

"How much of our health would be improved if we cared for each other better?" he asked. 

"Do you feel cared for and loved? That seems to work for every human being." 

Willling is a freelancer from McLean.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017