Friday, November 5, 2010

Playing God?

Tarris Rosell, DMin, PhD
Rosemary Flanigan Chair

An email discussion arose recently on a hospital ethics case in which a patient’s family accused medical providers of "playing God" because they wanted to end what physicians deemed “futile” treatment. One discussant asked: “What constitutes ‘playing God’? It seems to me that if God wanted someone to live, there would be very little we could do to stop him. The same is true of dying. Obviously some people think differently.”

The tenor of several respondents seemed to be that this likely isn't a logical or even theological statement on the part of the family, but emotive reaction to impending loss and grief. If one responds with logic or theology or philosophy, we really ARE engaged in futility. The conversation goes nowhere. Or probably so. So mostly listen then, empathize, care. (And don't engage in futile acts. Another discussion thread perhaps.)

But why bring up "God" at all then? Surely a person who uses that terminology ("playing God") means SOMEthing by it other than as a synonym for "Do everything, Doc!" Is it merely a convenient invective against providers by an angry and distrustful family?



Anonymous Christopher Church said...

This past week, Halloween coincided with my lecturing on the ethics of research on human subjects. Given that confluence, I shared a PowerPoint on “Research abuses in literary and cinematic imagination: Real fears, fictional settings.” Classic works in the horror/science fiction genre—for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and H. G. Well’s The Strange Island of Dr. Moreau(1896)—regularly deal with physician-investigators who might be said to be “playing God.” Shelley, for instance, speaks of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature rather than his monster, suggesting that Dr. Frankenstein has usurped the role of Creator. The creatures fashioned by H. G. Well’s Dr. Moreau invoke him as Father, with similar effect.
In the clinic, physicians are not creating life, but non-clinicians may view them as having the God-like power to give life or to take it away. The charge of “playing God” is not typically leveled in cases in which the physician is viewed as life-giving, probably because this is viewed as a responsible use of power or even as a blessing by those comfortable with God-language. The charge of “playing God” is often heard in those fearful circumstances in which families feel powerless relative to one they perceive as the all-powerful physician. Appeal to this language may be an attempt to level the playing field—“You are not God; I don’t care who you are; I am going to do what I think is best for my loved one.”
Dr. Moreau’s project of creating human-animal chimeras (as opposed to the “each according to its kind” pattern of the Genesis creation story) reflects another type of “playing God” charge. There, the physician-investigator’s bold willingness to cross boundaries believed to be divinely set seems an invitation to moral chaos.
Similarly, in the clinical setting, some family may fear that physicians are abandoning traditional boundaries (for example, traditional proscription of physician-assistance in suicide). Family may fear that in a world of perceived moral chaos their health care provider cannot be counted on to act in the patient’s interest.

Friday, November 05, 2010  
Blogger Tarris said...

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Dr Church. I agree. The colloquialism surely has to do with distrust of and/or anger with the perceived god-player, along with a sense of boundaries-crossing especially in research (e.g., chimeras) or end of life care (e.g., PAS). -- TR

Wednesday, November 17, 2010  

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