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Faith and Medicine: From Companionship to War

This essay describes how history shows us that faith/religion used to work hand in hand with medicine, but now is the center of debate and confusion... Should we put aside morals for breakthrough treatment?

Controversial Medicine throughout History

As long as history and medicine has existed, there has been controversy surrounding the practices and approaches concerning new research. There is a very fine line concerning the point where medical investigation becomes wrong and immoral. Studying the history of medicine as a whole, it becomes clear as to why such controversy exists. In the early times of medicine, spirituality and medicinal practices were one in the same. With roots going back to spirituality, it’s no surprise that faith based arguments would exist today. From the early roots, medicine has progressed to become one of the most impressive fields of study possible. However, it didn’t get to where it is today with ease. Studies performed by Joseph Mengele and the ideas of stem cell and embryonic research are just two examples of development that faced great opposition in its use. However, despite the criticisms, it’s important to remember that nothing is done without some form of opposition, and the field of medicinal research needs to be look at with an open mind. Despite the historical ties to faith and religion, medicinal research is a subject that has to be looked at with an open mind, and one has to consider the amazing developments that have spawned from controversial research and the continuing need of such research today.

Judging from what we know of present-day primitive cultures, religion, magic, and medical treatment were seen in ancient times as one in the same. Dr. Albert Lyons, a historian who specializes in ancient history, explains it like this: “The supernatural world was imminent in all things, affecting one's health, livelihood, and social activities, but not all illnesses were thought to be religiously or magically generated. Primitive man apparently often distinguished between ordinary conditions (such as old age, coughs, colds, and fatigue) and illnesses caused by spirits and evil forces that required the special services of a medicine man, shaman, or witch doctor” (1). Even from the beginnings of medicine, faith and a belief in spirits and demons affected the way we looked at medicine. Humans looked to faith as a way to explain the unknown and simplify treatments. Historically, doctors and priests have been one in the same. An individual would look to their God, or a priest that was able to talk to God, in order to find healing. This is evident in Greek culture, where there were Gods for almost every occurrence in life. For example, Apollo was often considered to be a god of healing, and in stories such as The Iliad is depicted as the bringer and reliever of plagues. Hera was the protector of females, and she and her daughter, Eileithyia, were often called upon during childbirth. The goddess Hygieia, which is Greek for ‘health’, was considered a guardian of health (2). The idea of faith and beliefs has always been tied with medicine in one way or another, and the idea of faith based science appeared again a thousand years later.

Sometimes medicinal research has come from immoral and dastardly people, and the research itself obtained in evil ways. One very strong example of such research is the work of Joseph Mengele. Dr. Mengele was the head doctor at Auschwitz, a concentration camp during the Holocaust. He has always been marked by history as the “Angel of Death” for his brutal science experiments that frequently resulted in death. His focus was mostly on twins and what made twins genetically occur, however he also did work on disease, eye color, and post-mortem analysis (3). Despite the setting and the nature of his work, Mengele still carried out his research like any doctor would. Robert Jay Lifton, a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has done extensive research on Mengele and describes the working environment Mengele set up. “Mainly to pursue his studies of twins, Mengele set up an Auschwitz caricature of an academic research institute. Inmate doctors, mostly Jewish, with specialized training in various laboratory and clinical areas, were called upon to contribute to his work by diagnosing, sometimes treating, X-raying and performing post-mortem examinations of his research subjects”(3). Dr Miklos Nyiszli, Mengele's prisoner pathologist, would handle the post-mortem work. The autopsies became the final experiment. Dr. Nyiszli performed autopsies on twins whom had died from the experiments or whom had been purposely killed just for after-death measurements and examination (4). All of this research was carefully documented and sent back to Berlin. After the war was over, there was much debate as to if Dr. Mengele’s research should be used in hospitals around the world. Most people said that since his research was founded on immoral grounds, it shouldn’t be used. However, Mengele made serious advances in the treatment of disease and new research into genetics. Without his research, which is still used in hospitals and laboratories across the world, doctors might not know how to treat certain diseases or understand the genetic relationship between twins. Even though his motives were evil, and go against the Christian idea, they should still be used today to further progress work to save lives.

Much like the work of Mengele, genetic research today has become the target of criticism from religious groups throughout the United States. Supporters, like the National Institutes of Health, cite strong examples as to the benefits, such as, “...research involving human pluripotent stem cells...promises new treatments and possible cures for many debilitating diseases and injuries, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns and spinal cord injuries” (5). However, opposition, which largely comes from the Catholic church, argues that at some point a human life comes into the equation, and it is wrong to kill any human being. The Catholic Church says life begins “…from the moment of the union of the gametes - a human subject with a well defined identity…” (6), thus making any embryo or stem cell research a sin. The question is raised at what point, if ever, sacrificing a few lives is worth saving the lives of a million others in the future. It also becomes a question as to when a human life actually becomes a life. Because science is rooted with the basis of some faith, it can be hard to draw the line on these questions. However, most people take the view that if the science community can make an impact on heart disease and other illnesses, then it should be done for the greater good. If millions of lives can benefit from the research, it should take place no matter what the effects.

History has shown us that faith has always been involved with medicine. In the beginning, faith acted as medicine, and Gods and Goddesses protected and healed those who were sick. Doctors used to be religious priests and monks, and prayer was a major part of healing. However, as time and technology progressed, faith became an issue that would spawn any time new research was on the horizon. It was difficult to decide when something was immoral, and when something should go above morals to aid the greater good. Scientist like Joseph Mengele preformed research that cost human lives, but also taught us more about the body and how it works. And scientists today are researching new cures for diseases and ways to save many lives, sometimes at the cost of what religion considers “people.” However, no matter the cost, research must be done to try and rid the world of diseases that end lives prematurely, and advances must be made to better the human race and condition as a whole.

Lyons, Albert S. "Primitive Medicine." Health Guidance. 01 Apr. 2009 ..

North, Michael. "Greek Medicine." History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. 1 Apr. 2009.

Lifton, Robert J. "WHAT MADE THIS MAN? MENGELE." The New York Times [New York] 21 July 1985, Late City Final Edition ed., Section 6 sec.: 16. 1 Apr. 2009 ..

Nyiszli, Miklos. Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. New York: Arcade, 1993.

Burklow, John. "NIH Publishes Final Guidelines for Stem Cell Research." Letter to General Public. 23 Aug. 2000. The National Institutes of Health. 1 Apr. 2009 ..

Correa, Juan de Dios V. "DECLARATION ON THE PRODUCTION AND THE SCIENTIFIC AND THERAPEUTIC USE OF HUMAN EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS." Letter to General Public. 25 Aug. 2000. Vatican: the Holy See. Vatican City. 1 Apr. 2009 .va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdlife/documents/rc_pa_acdlife_doc_20000824_cellule-staminali_.

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