by Dr. Julie Ponesse, PhD
In March 1942, 33 year-old Anne Miller was near death at New Haven Hospital suffering from streptococcal septicemia (a serious blood infection). At one point, Anne’s temperature spiked to 106 degrees. Transfusions, sulfa drugs, surgery all failed. Her doctors desperately obtained and treated her with a tiny amount of what was then an unknown, experimental drug. Her temperature dropped sharply overnight and Miller made a full recovery. The drug was penicillin.
One of the remarkable things about this story is that penicillin was able to save so many lives because the drug companies involved shared the method for making penicillin with one another to accelerate production. As George Merck (President of Merck Pharmaceuticals) said, “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits.”
You might have expected a column on medical ethics to start with a more sensational example. The Tuskegee experiment, “Dolly” the sheep, abortion, or euthanasia. Real or imagined, these examples are important. But they are far removed from the moral challenges most of us face on a daily basis.
The case of Anne Miller gets at one of the most fundamental questions in medical ethics: what is medicine for? In philosophy, we call this the teleological question (from the Greek, “telos,” for purpose or goal). What is the purpose of medicine? What is its goal? To help humans? To make a profit? Can it have more than one purpose or no purpose at all?
If you are waiting for an answer, I am going to disappoint, partly because unpacking an answer will be the work of this column for the next year and partly because I want to give you the opportunity to think about it for yourself.
Who am I? My resumé will tell you that I have a PhD in Ethics and Ancient Philosophy, and a Masters in Philosophy with Specialization in Bioethics. But my experience with resumés is that they often suggest too little, and sometimes too much, about the reality of a person.
In some sense, it doesn’t matter who I am. If you have read this far, then something caused you to pause and devote your attention to the words I offer here. If what I write is compelling, if it gives you the moral language to think through some of the most pressing medical ethical issues of our day, then I will count that as no small victory.
So with that said, I invite you to join me on a weekly journey exploring medical ethics.
What you will find over the next 49 weeks is a story. A story not just of ethical problems and solutions, but of our humanity and how we have tried, sometimes more successfully than others, to control our bodies and the world around us.
Medicine affects us all, and it has ethical dimensions because it is able to cause and prevent the greatest harms. For that reason, alone, it is not the distinct purview of specialists or “experts,” but the appropriate subject of deliberation and conversation for everyone in virtue of being human.
So, as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius said, “to begin is half the work.” He also said that the next step is to “Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it.”
So I invite you, over the next year, to concentrate on what we have to do. Let’s fix our eyes on it. Hopefully, by the end of 2022, we will have a richer sense not only of the ethical dimensions of medicine, but of how we got here, who we are, and how we can do better in the future. For this is all anyone can ask of us.
Julie Ponesse has a PhD in Philosophy (Western, 2008) with areas of specialization in ethics and ancient philosophy. She has a Masters from the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto and a Diploma in Ethics from the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. She has published in the areas of ancient philosophy, ethical theory, and applied ethics, and has taught at universities in Canada and the US for 20 years.
In the fall of 2021, Dr. Julie Ponesse saw her academic career of 20 years fall apart after she refused to comply with a Canadian university's COVID vaccine mandate. In response, Dr. Ponesse recorded a special video directed to her first-year ethics students. That video went viral.
Since the release of that video, Dr. Ponesse has joined The Democracy Fund as Ethics Scholar focusing on educating the public on civil liberties. She is the author of My Choice: The Ethical Case Against COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates.