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10 World Health • 49th Yeor, No.5, September-October 1996

A plea for the individual

Claude Sureau

As a physician, I am convinced that one of the most

fundamental missions of the medical and health fraternity is to pay attention to the true physical, psychological and social interests of the individual.


eople in different professions view the world from different angles. Some demographers deplore rapid population growth in view of limited resources and the consequences for the environment, while others draw attention to the ill effects of a declining birth rate on rural areas. Some philosophers advocate absolute respect for tran- scendental principles, whether they are based on "revealed" or humanis- tic truths; some sociologists recog- nize the equal value of different cultures, whatever repercussions this might have for the life of the individ- ual; some politicians, aware of what is at stake in protecting and improv- ing health, think in economic terms about how best to distribute re- sources. Finally, some lawyers, concerned about the dangers for society of various human propensi- ties, devise legislation based on natural or substantive law to control behaviour considered to be wrong or, more simply, forbidden.

All such attitudes are legitimate and necessary. The ways in which they converge or balance or even conflict constitute the basis for social life. This has always been true, but the progress made in receqt years in reproductive medicine has high-

Family planning counselling in Thailand. The ability to space births is one of the safeguards against high maternal mortality.

lighted the divergences between the interests of society and the often less obvious interests of the individual.

At the risk of provoking the charge of medical paternalism, I am con- vinced as a practitioner that one of the most fundamental missions of the medical and health fraternity (besides, of course, the obligation to be competent) is to pay attention to the true physical, psychological and social interests of the individual.

A scandal of our century

One of the great scandals of our century is the persistence of levels of maternal mortality that can fairly be called outrageous. I am not thinking here of demography, but of the indi- vidual suffering involved. I think of the nearly 600 000 women who die each year because of the deficiencies of our societies; I think of the 600 000 families disrupted or even destroyed, and of the orphaned children. This is intolerable, unless of course one considers maternal deaths as a minor detail because only women are involved.

How can it still be possible today, amid all the official declarations about sexual equality, to treat the deaths of these women with indiffer- ence? Philosophical, ethical and judicial arguments, however gratify- ing, tend to overlook the principal fact- the death of an individual, multiplied by so many thousands. As for the causes of this mortality, it is hardly surprising to find, high on the list, poor access to family planning, with its direct result of high fertility, and its indirect result of unsafe abor- tion.

No less to blame are inadequate health care structures, shortages of competent health personnel, and, more recently, the spread of HIV/AIDS, which has particularly dire consequences for women, who are almost always unable to protect themselves, and for families. The plight of children orphaned by AIDS has received too little attention and is becoming a major international problem.

Not only financial but also psy- chological obstacles bedevil the search for solutions to such problems as the social situation of women,


World Health • 49th Year, No.5, September-october 1996

A pregnant woman has her blood pressure checked in Burundi. Proper maternal care ensures safe motherhood.

education, contraception, and the protection of babies at birth. We have to be practical and use what resources there are, not for some grandiose project but to meet specific needs, for example, by building basic maternity clinics and training the staff to run them. In the longer term we can only hope to find better safeguards for maternal and perinatal health, to improve living conditions and to upgrade the social status of women.

Female genital mutilation is another cause for concern. We know that the reasons for this practice are cultural and social rather than reli- gious and that they can be discussed at great length. But from the human point of view, it is an act that hurts and kills, so merely theoretical con- siderations are of little value. We have to unite with the educators and particularly with the women who are themselves concerned to combat this practice, as certain bold countries have succeeded in doing.

"Trivial" problems?

When one looks at these enormous and fundamental problems in the battle against death and suffering, it could be thought that Western soci- eties devote excessive time and money to problems that some people would consider trivial, such as ante- natal diagnosis or medically assisted conception.

Some people declare that it is shocking to tamper with embryos, in other words to carry out research aimed at improving the results of in vitro fertilization when all over the world so many babies are dying or being abandoned. Antenatal diagno- sis and, even more importantly, pre- implant diagnosis, are said to lead to embryonic selection and eugenics.

The progress being made in biotechnology is not without risks.

Frequent disappointments, multiple pregnancies, premature delivery, and other mishaps constitute the price paid for the benefits. Moreover, new dilemmas arise from new solutions to age-old problems: the fate of frozen embryos and the medical interruption of pregnancy have become the sub- ject of much controversy, uncertainty

and sometimes anguish. At the same time, much remains to be done to improve the conditions of child adoption, in particular when it in- volves more than one country.

In the end, what we learn from reproductive medicine-in its broad- est sense ranging from perinatal studies to antenatal diagnosis and medically assisted conception -is the value that it has for the individ- ual. For those directly involved in this activity, the word "ethical" refers mainly to this concern to help the individual, rather than the application of abstract principles, still less the application of laws. Indeed the phrase "bioethicallaw" that is some- times used seems like a contradiction in terms.


It is really up to the practitioners and the persons involved to define the best attitude to adopt, and the relationship to be established be- tween moral rules and behavioural norms that are often contradictory.

The existence of such contradictions is natural since the problems very often concern more than one individ- ual-who may well have different interests. Also, it is often more a matter of making existential choices than of solving health problems.

The duty of practitioners is pre- cisely to go beyond the framework of explicit pathologies and to involve themselves in matters that impinge on the psychological and social balance of individuals. This compas- sionate role, which has become so prominent with the upsurge of biotechnology, was summed up by Emmanuel Levinas in the highly significant phrase: "individual good- ness, from human being to human being". •

Dr Claude Sureau is Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris V, and former President of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics and of its Committee for the Study of Ethical Aspects of Human

Reproduction. His address is 9 Boulevard du Chateau, 92200 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Childbirth in Belarus. Babies too have a fundamental right to health protection.


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