The Bionic Woman

Episode: 
11

A couple of years ago, former Marine Claudia Mitchell made history as the first bionic woman. Just by thinking, she can control a robot, and the robot experiences physical sensations. The robot? Her prosthetic arm.

Claudia lost her left arm in a motorcycle accident, and was frustrated with her standard prosthesis. Surgeons tried a new arm and a new procedure. They moved the nerve endings from her shoulder, and attached them to the muscles in her chest.

The results are amazing. When Claudia thinks about movement-for example, opening her bionic hand-the nerves in her brain send a message to the nerve endings in her chest muscle. Electrodes receive those impulses, and a computer in her arm transmits the instructions to her hand, which then opens.

This technological and medical miracle had a surprise for Claudia. When water in the shower hit the nerve endings in her chest muscles, she "felt" hot water on her missing hand. The same thing happened with cold or pressure on her chest, and "felt" those in her left hand.

We rightly celebrate these incredible advances in biomedicine and biotechnology. How can we evaluate these developments? Are all of these good if they can help someone who's been injured?

In order to answer questions about innovations, we need to think about the goals of medicine. Traditionally, the high calling of the medical profession is to provide care and comfort, heal the sick when possible, restore the injured, and help the patient return as close to "normal" functioning as possible. Increasingly, many of the solutions come from technology, not classical medicine. Claudia's bionic arm is a high-tech, biomedical engineering masterpiece. It enables her to live a nearly normal life. But we must remember that this does not make her more human. When she lost her arm, Claudia lost nothing of her humanity.

So, what do we do when the technological solution does more than overcome a disability, making a person "better than well"? Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner, lost both legs when he was a baby, and runs on two blade-shaped legs. He has won track events in the Paralympics, and sought Olympic glory. The Olympic committee denied his petition, claiming that his carbon-fiber legs might give him an unfair speed advantage. Were they right? Are his legs a repair of injury, or an enhancement, something that made him "better than well"?

Medicine doesn't help answer this question. Claudia and Oscar needed their artificial limbs; the unintended consequences was increased sensation and speed. Technology is fundamentally changing our ideas about health, normality, and enhancement. As Christians, we should not fear technology, or blame it for every modern problem. Neither should we see it as an unadulterated good, to be consumed and enjoyed. We must realize that every technology embodies some kind of value or values, such as efficiency, power, or mobility. What is the value that is driving us to use a particular technology? Healing, or getting a competitive edge? Think about it.

 

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