The very difficult and tragic case of Sarah Murnaghan, the ten-year-old girl who needs a lung transplant in order to survive has made national news.Since Sarah is under twelve years of age, she cannot be on the adult transplant list, which would increase her chances of receiving a transplant. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has been put in the very difficult position of making an exception to put young Sarah on the adult waiting list. She has resisted doing so, but now a federal judge has ordered her to do just that.
This is an extremely difficult and agonizing situation. On the one hand, I completely understand Sarah's parents' desire to see their daughter live. If she were my daughter, I would be fighting tooth and nail to get her that transplant. On the other hand, I also understand the other side of the issue as well. In putting Sarah at the head of the line will that action mean someone else's death whose time will run out before another lung is available? I do not understand the criticism from some conservative pundits suggesting that Secretary Sebelius has become a one-women death panel. It seems to me that her position is the politically conservative one-- that laws should not be changed or exceptions made based on emotional whims. Of course, it is preferable in my view to save a young girl who potentially has her entire life ahead of her than to give those same lungs to someone who has already lived most of her or his life. Every life is precious. A price tag cannot be attached to anyone, but the reality is decisions are made every day, even in medicine, that affect the lives of others.
One of things that is seldom discussed or acknowledged is that medicine, health care, just like everything else in life has limited capabilities and resources. The medical resource well is not bottomless. Medicine is and always will be rationed-- it doesn't matter whether the health care system is a purely private system where the insurance companies decline medicines and procedures for various reasons, or whether it's a single payer system where the government gives that task to an agency of some kind. In medicine money, time, and resources are not without end. So when Secretary Sebelius says that some live and some die, she is correct. Of course, it can be difficult to accept that truth when it's your loved one whose life hangs in the balance. We must remember that the other person who is ill that we do not know and who will be denied their life-saving procedure because they are now one place down on the list is loved and cherished by others too.
I am not suggesting that organ transplant regulations should not be revisited. I am also not saying that young Sarah should go to the head of the line nor left on the children's transplant list. As I said, this is one of those tragic and agonizing situations where no decision is perfect. What I am saying is that as we work to make sure that everyone has access to basic health care (a good thing) and as we seek to offer the best medicine we can (another good thing), we need to remember that medicine is not and will never be the gift that keeps on giving for all time. It cannot achieve immortality. Eternity is in the hands of God alone.
Perhaps one of the gifts the church can give to the world is to be the kind of people who live their lives in such a way that we bear witness to the finitude of our existence, which means that there comes a time when we willingly no longer fight even death. Perhaps we need to be reminded that ultimately our lives rest not in the hands of physicians, but in the hands of God. Perhaps our desire to be kept alive beyond all reason testing the limits of medicine can demonstrate a lack of faith in the One who gives us all our days and who is with us in all our days.
The only thing without limit is the love of God who is with us in life and in death.
Let us pray for Sarah Murnaghan.