Humility and Grace
DaVinci's "View of a Foetus in the Womb" detail
By Amy Chai
I was only a medical student, but I was already striving to comprehend meaning and context in the profession I had chosen. My professor, a renowned researcher and author, was someone I looked up to as a mentor. He was silver-haired and tall, with a ready smile and an honest concern for his patients. He was the type of doctor that every student would like to emulate, not only for his many achievements, but also for his humanity. What I'm trying to say is that this man was one of the good guys.
His goodness was the quality that would ultimately disturb me the most.
I was not prepared for the lesson I would learn in a darkened auditorium one afternoon during a lecture on medical ethics. It happened over twenty-five years ago, and I still recall the story in vivid detail. Should I have said something? It's hard to know. None of us spoke of what we learned that day. Discussing it felt too much like betrayal. It still feels that way to me, but I believe that this story is part of a greater conversation that none of us should ignore. And so with some hesitation, I speak.
"When we conduct medical research," my professor said, "it ought to be with humility and grace." I could almost hear the Amen and Hallelujah, brother from the congregation in the auditorium. Humility and grace, after all, were words that resonated deeply with all of us who had been reared in the Bible Belt. Most of us in the room would have considered ourselves Christians, at least nominally so. My professor was genuine in his reverence for the topic of ethical decision-making in medicine, and we were really connecting with his message. His earnestness was the thing that grabbed us; this was a man with complete confidence in the rightness of his message. Once he had our attention, he began to recount a story to illustrate his point.
The story should have been mundane: it was an ordinary day in the laboratory, and the professor was engaged in medical research. This research was being done on late term aborted fetuses, fresh from the suite across the hall. The rationalization in my mind began immediately. Okay, that isn't so bad ... the fetuses would only end up in the dumpster anyway, so shouldn’t we do something productive with the bodies? Of course we should! Yet I felt vaguely uncomfortable as I wondered what fetal research had to do with humility and grace.
The research demanded that my professor use a large pair of surgical scissors to cut the legs from the fetuses. On the day in question, he took a pair of shears and began to cut through the leg of a freshly aborted fetus. On that day, the fetus fought for her life. She struggled and withdrew her slender leg from the sharp sting of metal that bit into her flesh. My professor dropped the girl's tiny body to the stainless steel table with a sudden paroxysm of sheer horror. She was still alive!
My professor told us that he was deeply shaken by this event. He paced and trembled, unable to return to the table where the tiny body lay still. He knew—he must have known—he did know somewhere deep in his soul that something was profoundly amiss. It was a crisis point, a time to reach an epiphany in the depths of his spirit.
The soul-searching went on for a full half hour, and then my professor dared to approach the now lifeless corpse on the table. What would he do? Would he rend his garments, wail, and beat the air as one mourning a lost child? Would he foreswear the process that provided the means of his livelihood at the expense of one so young?
The lecture hall was utterly silent as we all waited for the professor to finish his tale. I may have been holding my breath; I can't remember now. Some two hundred medical students waited to hear about the great ethical lesson that our mentor had learned on that terrible day. It was as if we were all priests, the auditorium a confessional booth. Our unspoken assent held the power of absolution. After a dramatic pause, the narration resumed.
As he approached the table, the scientist breathed a sigh of relief. The child was finally dead. He picked her up, took the scissors, and cut off her legs. The End.
No, that wasn't the great ethical lesson. The lesson that the professor wanted us to learn from his harrowing experience was this: when we conduct medical research, we ought to conduct it with a deeply felt attitude of humility and grace. This is because we are given the gift of life. Can I get a witness? Amen.
I was confused and a bit disoriented as I sat in the lecture hall, listening to more speeches about medical ethics. We learned about "informed consent" and "patient autonomy," but it all seemed a bit surreal. Who will ever be informed about their death beforehand? As far as I knew, God never sent anybody a telegram. Hey, you're going to die today! Would you like to fill out a consent form? And what is autonomy? Who really has control over their ultimate destiny? None of that other stuff made any sense at all to me in light of the fact that we were, in my mind, killing people.
At the end of the day, I had the impression that ethics was all about doing whatever we thought was best, provided the outcome was convenient.
If the source of ethical behavior lies within our own intellect, I suppose it could be reasoned that our actions must always be truly godlike and therefore full of, well, grace. The grace that flows from us, the educated elite, goes to the chosen elect: those few valuable souls we choose to save by our own unfathomable will. When we choose the role of God to value one life over another, no matter how good our intentions, it is not grace that suffers, but humility. In our desire to achieve truly laudable outcomes, we subtly shift God’s sovereign rule for our own. In our sovereignty, however, we have chosen to steal life. In the stealing we fell, and are falling still.