The Ethics of New Age Medicine

Patients who face serious illnesses are sometimes attracted to alternative medicines, also referred to as “holistic” or “new-age” medicines. These can include treatments like homeopathy, hypnosis, “energy therapies” like Reiki, acupuncture, and herbal remedies, to name just a few.

These approaches raise various medical and ethical concerns. An important 1998 article in the New England Journal of Medicine sums it up this way:

“What most sets alternative medicine apart, in our view, is that it has not been scientifically tested and its advocates largely deny the need for such testing. By testing, we mean the marshaling of rigorous evidence of safety and efficacy, as required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the approval of drugs and by the best peer-reviewed medical journals for the publication of research reports.”

Beyond the fact that their clinical efficacy has not earned a passing grade using ordinary methods of scientific investigation, the basic premise behind some alternative medicines can also be highly suspect, raising concerns about superstitious viewpoints or misguided forms of spirituality motivating certain therapies.

If we consider acupuncture, this technique does appear to provide benefit in certain cases of pain control. Yet similar results have been reported using “sham” needles — tapping the skin in random places with a thin metal tube. Brain scans have demonstrated that treatment with genuine needles, as opposed to the sham needles, does cause detectable changes in the brain. But, when researchers ignored acupuncturists’ recommended “meridian placement” of needles, and instead did random placement in the skin, the same brain effects were observed. Hence, it is unclear whether the results seen from acupuncture arise mostly from the well-known “placebo effect” or not. Further research should help resolve this question.

Even if the observed effects are not placebo-related, acupuncture’s non-rational justification for its purported effectiveness remains a concern. It is based on energy principles that neither science nor faith affirm. Glenn Braunstein, M.D. described it critically in the following way:

“Ch’i, the invisible nutritive energy that flows from the universe into the body at any one of 500 acupuncture points, is conducted through the 12 main meridians [channels] in (ideally) an unbroken circle. Meridians conduct either Yin energy (from the sun) or Yang energy (from the earth). All maladies are caused by disharmony or disturbances in the flow of energy.”

Clearly, then, some alternative therapies, beyond the basic issue about whether they work, raise serious spiritual concerns as well.

Another new-age therapy known as Reiki, developed in Japan in the late 1800s, claims that sickness can be caused by a disruption or imbalance in a patient’s “Reiki” or “life energy.” Reiki practitioners try to heal a patient by placing their hands in certain positions on the body in order to facilitate the flow of Reiki from the practitioner to the patient.

A 2009 document from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stresses, “In terms of caring for one’s spiritual health, there are important dangers” that can arise by turning to Reiki. The document notes that because Reiki therapy is not compatible with either Christian teaching or scientific evidence, it would be inappropriate for Catholics to put their trust in the method, because to do so would be to operate “in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science.”

Scientific investigations of another new-age therapy, the popular herbal remedy known as echinacea (taken early to ward off a cold) have revealed no difference between echinacea and a placebo in controlled studies involving several hundred subjects. While some herbal remedies may be harmless and inert placebos, others may have more serious health consequences if ingested above certain dosages due to ingredients of unknown potency derived from natural substances.

Sometimes a remedy can be borrowed from Chinese, Indian or another medical tradition, but it should be chosen for its efficacy, safety, and reasonable mode of action, and not be in conflict with principles of sound medical science or Christian teaching.

Health improvements that arise from alternative remedies may be due not only to the placebo effect, but also to the fact that patients are usually given more time, attention and focused concern by alternative practitioners than by traditional physicians. This can translate into modified habits and changed lifestyles, leading to various health benefits.

Modern medicine can be legitimately faulted for downplaying this dimension, so that, in the memorable words of pediatrician Jay Perman, “Doctors tend to end up trained in silos of specialization,” in which they are taught “to make a diagnosis, prescribe a therapy, and we’re done. But we’re not done.”

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates once noted the same point: “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” Today’s physicians-in-training, fortunately, are seeking to incorporate more and more of these “patient-centric” and “holistic” aspects into their own traditional medical practices to improve patient care and outcomes.

COMING UP: How does the Catholic Church resolve new bioethical questions?

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A number of years ago, I participated in a debate at Harvard on embryonic stem cell research which also included a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopalian clergyman, and a Muslim imam. The debate went smoothly and cordially, although I was the only voice in the group who defended the human rights of individuals who happen still to be embryos. After the debate, the Episcopalian clergyman pulled me aside and told me how he thought Catholics should consider themselves fortunate to have such an authoritative reference point in the Church and the Vatican, particularly when it comes to resolving new bioethical questions. With surprising candor, he shared how he had sat on various committees with others from his own faith tradition where they had tried to sort through the ethics of embryonic stem cells, and he lamented, “we just ended up discussing feelings and opinions, without any good way to arrive at conclusions.”

Many people, indeed, appreciate that the Catholic Church holds firm and well-defined positions on moral questions, even if they may remain unsure about how or why the Church actually arrives at those positions, especially when it comes to unpacking new scientific developments like embryonic stem cell research.

So how does the Church arrive at its positions on bioethics? For one thing, it takes its time, and doesn’t jump to conclusions even in the face of media pressure for quick sound bites and rapid-fire news stories.

I once had a discussion with a journalist for a major newspaper about the ethics of human-animal chimeras. He mentioned that a leading researcher working on chimeras had met the pope and afterwards implied that the pope had given his blessing to the project. I reminded him that it’s quite common for the pope to offer general encouragement and blessings to those he meets, though that wouldn’t be the same thing as sanctioning new and morally controversial techniques in the biosciences. As a rule, the Catholic Church does not address important bioethical questions that way, through chance encounters with the pope as you are strolling through the hallways of the Vatican.

Instead, the Church may reflect for months, years, or even decades, to identify important considerations and guiding principles when new moral dilemmas arise in the biosciences. Even with this slow and deliberative process, I think it’s fair to say that the Church generally stays ahead of the curve. By the time of the successful cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996, for example, the Catholic Church had already been reflecting on the question of human cloning for many years, and concluded, nine years prior to Dolly, that human cloning would be morally unacceptable in an important document called Donum Vitae (On the Gift of Life).

This same document also identified key moral problems with doing human embryonic stem cell research eleven years before it was even possible to destructively obtain those cells from human embryos. When the first test tube baby was born in 1978, the serious moral concerns raised by the procedure had already been spelled out twenty-two years earlier, by Pope Pius XII, in his 1956 Allocution to the Second World Congress on Fertility and Human Sterility wherein he concluded: “As regards experiments of human artificial fecundation ‘in vitro,’ let it be sufficient to observe that they must be rejected as immoral and absolutely unlawful.”

Whenever definitive conclusions about medical ethics are reached or otherwise clarified by the Church, they are normally promulgated through official Church documents, like papal encyclicals and addresses, or, with the approval of the pope, documents and commentaries from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF — the Vatican office responsible for preserving and interpreting Catholic doctrine), or other congregations, councils or dicasteries of the Church.

Even today, certain bioethical controversies remain under active discussion within the Church, such as the question of whether it would be allowable to “adopt” abandoned frozen embryos by implanting and gestating them in volunteer mothers. While a 2007 CDF document expressed some reservations and concerns about the proposal, debate continues inside and outside the Vatican.

New medical discoveries and technological developments challenge us to careful moral reflection and discernment. These scientific developments can either be an opportunity for genuine human advancement or can lead to activities and policies that undermine human dignity. The U.S. Bishops in a recent document summed it up this way: “In consultation with medical professionals, church leaders review these developments, judge them according to the principles of right reason and the ultimate standard of revealed truth, and offer authoritative teaching and guidance about the moral and pastoral responsibilities entailed by the Christian faith. While the Church cannot furnish a ready answer to every moral dilemma, there are many questions about which she provides normative guidance and direction.”

Featured image by Erick rumualdo bustos ortega – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,