Designer genes

February 18, 1991

In Minnesota, a hospital is going to court to ask permission to have life-sustaining equipment removed from 87-year-old Helga Wanglie -- against the wishes of her family.

Meanwhile, in Missouri, the father of 20-year-old Christine Busalacchi, comatose since a 1987 car accident, is attempting to have her moved to another state and given a full neurological exam. If the exam confirms that she is indeed in a persistent vegetative state, Pete Busalacchi says he wants permission to remove the feeding tube which keeps Christine alive.

Elsewhere in Missouri, the parents of Nancy Cruzan are going about the business of rebuilding their lives. Their daughter's death in December culminated a long legal fight to win the right to remove her from what they regarded as a cruel existence imposed by medical technology.

These stories have made news recently, but the dilemmas they represent are faced in varying degrees by thousands of American families every year. The headlines result in part from the fact that society is uneasy with the kinds of life-and-death choices that medical advances create. In many cases there are no correct answers; there are only better and worse decisions. But unless Americans give serious thought to these dilemmas, the country will continue to see such painful sights as the Cruzan family bearing up through a death vigil while, outside, right-to-life protesters are in effect calling her death a murder. Such scenes solve nothing; they only add to the pain.

Credit Kaiser Permanente, the health care plan, for bringing to Baltimore's Science Center an engaging exhibit -- "Designer Genes" -- that aims to get students and their families talking about touchy but important issues like donating organs or deciding when to consider medical treatment futile. The exhibit poses a range of ethical questions, from deciding which of six candidates should get an organ transplant to whether parents should be allowed to give their children human growth hormone. Many portions of the exhibit include a chance for visitors to register their votes. "Designer Genes," which runs through April 28, gives students and their families a rare chance to talk about important ethical issues.

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