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You live and learn…

Sunday, 7th February 2010

Although sometimes apparently you die and teach.

William Hunter and William Smellie (stop that tittering). Two names that would be utterly meaningless to me had I not just read an article about them. Apparently they were giants of medicine, pioneering midwifery and obstetrics. Good on ’em. Except that despite being revered by the medical community for the last quarter of a century or so they were allegedly hip deep in the murky world of “burking”.

A word I was also unaware of up until this evening. Derived from the infamous Burke and Hare it refers to the practice of murdering people at the request of anatomists in order to further their understanding of biology and human anatomy. It was alleged that the reason Hunter and Smellie were so well informed of the human biology behind pregnancy and childbirth was because they had a steady supply of freshly killed pregnant women to dissect. Not so good on ’em.

That got me thinking about ends and means. I don’t know enough about these two medicine men/serial killers to speak with any kind of authority on their achievements. The impression I got from the article was that their discoveries and developments were still in use today and presumably as a result mothers and babies that would otherwise have perished during childbirth have survived. If there was a way to quantify the number of lives these two men have saved with their research would it be reasonable to use this as a basis to justify the method of obtaining their data?

Historian Don Shelton, who has presented this theory, suggests that between them Hunter and Smellie were responsible for the deaths of 35-40 pregnant woman and of course their unborn children. Even if their findings only saved the lives of 1 woman and child a year over the last 250 years it still gives you a ratio of more than 6:1 in favour of burking. I suspect the real numbers would be considerably higher.

But does that make it ok? It certainly puts stem cell research and animal testing into a certain kind of perspective. If you had the choice would you delete all the knowledge and expertise that has developed off the back of the work done by these men if it meant the 35-40 alleged murder victims would have been spared? If you are morally outraged at the process of learning these things should you be morally outraged at the implementation of their methods of care?

I don’t have the answers incidentally, just asking the questions.

It made me think about all the other things we know and use on a daily basis. Not just medical knowledge but the food we eat, the machines we use and so on. It made we wonder what the hidden costs of all these things are. As a species we are so dazzled by progress we don’t stop to ask where it has come from and at what cost. Even if we did I don’t imagine if we ever found out 15 people were murdered to develop the iPod any of us would wan’t to go back to using portable CD players. Again, even if we did we would probably then uncover a string of kneecappings to develop the CD.

We know it goes on. We know things are cheap these days because workers are exploited. We know those knock off designer goods or pirate dvds are being sold by the same organisations who traffic people for prostitution or other similarly serious crimes. Blind eyes are turned because these issues don’t directly affect us and there is the upside of making our lives more convenient and comfortable. The vast majority of people make a deliberate choice not to acknowledge these things. I’m quite sure the same attitude must have existed 250 years ago.

Surely somebody must have found it a little bit odd that the two leading researchers into the anatomy of childbirth had a steady stream of heavily pregnant corpses upon which to carry out their research. Surely they must have known that women were being killed in the name of science. Undoubtedly the thought of the benefits of such research was reason enough to not ask too many questions and dig too deeply.

The question is though, would it do any good to open our eyes to these things? Could we do without the day to day knowledge and technology of this world in order to appease our moral compass?

Have a think gonnae, and let me know?

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