Medicalization and the Role of Medicine: Thinking Theologically


Hey, girls, listen up! For many of us, one of life’s guilty pleasures is “Say Yes to the Dress” reality show. We’re rivted by the emotional drama over choosing a wedding dress. Well, wedding dresses have entered the realm of bioethics. Recently, the New York Times highlighted the latest trend for brides trying to lose weight before their big day. Instead of hitting the gym, some brides have found doctors willing to help them lose weight quickly, through the “feeding tube diet.”[1]  With a feeding tube inserted into her stomach, after a few weeks—or sometimes just days—a bride can lose five to twenty-five pounds.

This is only the latest example of using a medical procedure to treat a human problem or desire that is not explicitly related to a disease.  Sociologists have called this trend “medicalization.”  Healthy individuals are turning to drugs and surgeries to help improve their looks, intelligence, or mood in the pursuit of happiness and self-perfection.

The trend towards medicalization raises questions as to what the proper role of medicine is.  Traditionally, the role of medicine has been to prevent and relieve suffering from disease and disability.  Using a feeding tube to lose weight or taking Ritalin to help study for a test not only falls outside of this definition, but also seems to be a misuse of medical resources.

Medicalization also raises the question as to how we can distinguish between emotions, behaviors, and limitations that are a normal part of human living and those that are abnormal. Medicalization seeks cures for sadness, exhaustion and unhappy memories. Some would like to push medicine even further, to permanently alter aspects of who we are, such as shyness, or our body type.

In our performance-driven culture, physical limitations are increasingly being reframed as medical conditions to be cured. As Christians we know that God, in his divine providence, created us first and foremost as creatures—His creatures.  Our experiences of bodily limitations such as fatigue and aging are not in and of themselves bad, but are simply an aspect of what it means to be human.

We suffer not only from disease, but also from the normal hardships of everyday life, like failure, disappointment, and grief. It’s the reality we live in. Call it the result of original sin. Modern medicine is amazing, but it has limitations. Its purpose is to cure when possible, and to care always. We know that only through Christ can we find answers to the deeper problems plaguing human existence.

The proper goal of medicine is not to cure every problem.  Being “thin enough” on her wedding day may be understandable, but the solution is not to misuse medicine. Vanity is not a medical problem, but a soul problem, and that needs the Divine Healer.

[1] Linda Lee, “Bridal Hunger Games: Losing Weight in Time for the Wedding,” New York Times April 13, 2012, (accessed April 18th, 2012). 


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