Confessional Bioethics: How Do We Attend to Suffering We Are Responsible For?
Steven Brodar, MA and Medical Student, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine
Health care practitioners are called to attend to pain and suffering, and bioethics can serve to articulate this call and specify how to respond. What should one do when the medical community or healthcare system causes pain and suffering? In these cases, the guidance of conventional bioethics is less clear. This is a serious concern for today's physicians who practice within a tradition marred by news of prominent physician misconduct, complicity in social crises like the opioid epidemic, and an ongoing history of exploiting marginalized bodies for scientific advancement. In Breaking the Fine Reign of Death, womanist theo-ethicist Emilie Townes names ways that health care has failed African American communities and describes one way of responding to this kind of unjust suffering. Drawing on the book of Joel, Townes describes lament as a way to give form to suffering and make way for justice. In such cases, where medicine has caused, perpetuated, or ignored a community's pain, is it possible for physicians to participate in this kind of communal response? In other cases, when medicine meets the limits of its ability to care or cure, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued that one can see a need for the Church – a community that forms its members to be present to others in the midst of pain. Communities of faith teach their members a variety to respond to suffering not just through lament but through practices like confession. Like lament, confession gives form to suffering and provides a way forward that requires acknowledgement, repentance, and hope for a community's healing. While the guidance of conventional bioethics is limited when practitioners must navigate responsibility in suffering, the practice of confession can inform bioethics and provide practitioners with a meaningful way to respond to a community's pain.