THE ETHICS OF MUTILATION: PROBLEMS CONNECTED WITH SURGERY
from Medical Ethics by Father Edwin F. Healy, S.J., Loyola University Press, Chicago 1956
Chapter FOUR (pages 121-122)
MUTILATION IS AN ACTION (an excision or the equivalent) by which an organic function or the use of a member of the body is intentionally destroyed either partially or wholly. The action consists of cutting out, crushing, burning, X-raying, or in some such manner directly destroying a part of the human body or of rendering an organ permanently inoperative. The mutilation may result in the suppression of an organic function- for example, the destruction of one’s vision or power of procreation- or it may consist in the amputation of an arm or a leg. To strip off skin from the body to use for grafting is not a mutilation, for in this operation no organic function or member of the body is destroyed. Neither would a blood transfusion, nor a face-lifting operation, nor dental extraction be considered mutilations in the technical sense of the term. Even procedures such as these, however, which are not mutilations in the strict sense of the term, may not be licitly used without a justifying reason.
The general rule regarding mutilation is this, that mutilation is licit only when necessary for preserving the health of the whole body. The reason that the scope of justifiable mutilations is thus limited is that man has the supreme ownership neither of the whole body nor of its various parts, and that he is therefore not permitted to treat them as though he were the supreme owner. Man is merely the custodian of his body and its parts. Directly to destroy the body or one of its parts is to exercise over that object supreme ownership. One cannot act more clearly in a manner that implies ownership over a thing than by destroying it, for by so doing he puts an end to its very existence.
Mutilation is, however, licit if it is required to conserve the health of the whole body. To save one’s life even at the expense of losing part of the body is the act of a wise administrator. The whole obviously is better than any single part; and since God has made us stewards of our bodies, we may presume that He desires that we sacrifice a part of the body if that is necessary to conserve the rest.
Circumcision of Newborn Males
Case 55 (pages 128-129)
Dr. J makes it a practice to circumcise all male infants shortly after birth. He says that this is merely routine procedure and that it is recommended by most competent physicians.
Unless there is a positive indication for circumcision, the operation should be omitted.
It has been said that too many physicians practice routine circumcision and give little thought to the complications that can result. In by far the majority of the operations, it is true, there have been no serious complications, but in some cases severe hemorrhage and infection have developed from the surgery. Unsightly scars, too, have at times resulted. To expose an infant to such dangers, though they be remote, would not be justified unless there were present a compensating reason. . . In premature babies, or in those not gaining weight as they should, or in those suffering from a blood disease or some infection, there would hardly be sufficient reason to run the risks involved. Some physicians, it seems, circumcise all male infants, and their motive appears to be mercenary. Such physicians act in a manner unworthy of their high calling.
William J. Schmidt, S.J.
Provincial of the Chicago Province
May 31, 1956
Austin G. Schmidt, S.J.
June 4, 1956
Samuel Cardinal Stritch
Archbishop of Chicago
June 7, 1956