On Fox's "House," Bioethics Meets Television

Life Academy Member Offers Critique of Series

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ROME, SEPT. 13, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The Fox Broadcasting Company's series titled "House" reflects the existence of good and evil and the need to choose between the two, says a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.



Dr. Carlo Valerio Bellieni is director of the Department of Newborn Intensive Therapy of the University Polyclinic Le Scotte in Siena, Italy. He told ZENIT that the series "shows something interesting."

He explained: "The show seems to be an apology for separation and absence: It tells the story of a misanthrope and harsh doctor, Gregory House, who doesn't want any contact with patients.

"This separation, however, caused by his existential and physical suffering, is only apparent. While remaining surly and anti-social, each time he insistently tries to understand the depths of the person he is caring for.

"He is able to recognize suffering in others because of his own suffering and it is because of this that he can see things that may escape others.

"It is even more strange, and interesting, that the 'non-politically correct' actions and judgments, with some exceptions, come from a character who is in constant struggle with the world."

A doctor's role

The series debuted in November 2004 and stars British actor Hugh Laurie.

House "doesn't follow the crowd when it comes to ethical relativism in medicine -- the autonomy of the patient, the doctor as a 'provider of a service' that has lost the ability to give moral judgments on the practice of medicine," Bellieni continued.

The pontifical academy member explained: "He speaks harshly with his patients to persuade them to accept a cure, not to give in to their wishes. He knows that there exists a good medical practice and a mistaken one and he wants his patients to choose the good one. But also because in the patient's answer he is trying to find an answer for himself."

Bellieni said this "is much better than those who leave the patient alone in the face of a diagnosis of words and numbers, only 'free' to choose to live or die."

He explained: "To put it another way, the writers of the series paradoxically seem to tell us that often words, and certain sweet and pious expressions that are fashionable, serve to cover up distance between persons.

"This is wonderfully underlined by the soundtrack, full of music with a religious tone or that shows the dissatisfaction of a life without meaning, like 'Desire' by Ryan Adams or 'Hallelujah' by Jeff Buckley."

"We observe two clear points by the creators of the series," continued Bellieni. "First, that the doctor is not a 'provider of a service' to whom every request is equal, but he knows how to recognize a good answer from an evil answer and how to find the strength to not give them the latter.

"Second, the doctor-patient relationship is never a one-way street: There is not only the one who gives, the doctor, and one who receives, the patient, but the doctor either finds himself in the position to learn strength from the patient, his way of communicating and his hidden signals … or he gives an ineffective treatment."

"House," Bellieni explained, "goes to the depressed manager who is waiting to be placed on the heart transplant list and screams at him saying 'Do you want to live? Tell me, because I don't know if I do!' and he doesn't do this so he will write a 'living will,' but to reawaken in him, and in himself, a love for life.

"House is certainly not a saint and he sometimes makes bad moral choices. But if he were a saint, would it be so surprising to hear him cry out, as sometimes happens, against drugs or incestuous sex or in vitro fertilization?"

Finding humanity

The fourth season of the series is set to begin in the United States on Sept. 25. Laurie was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a drama series in 2005 and this year.

Bellieni said: "House knows how to astonish: He makes mistakes, grinds his teeth, but he knows how to recognize what is human when he sees it."

"This is the important point, often overlooked in medical practice: amazement at the mysterious humanity of the patient."

"House," Bellieni remarked, "lets the little girl with a tumor hug him, whose life he prolonged by one year, and impressed with the moral strength of the little girl he begins to change his way of life."

"In the same way," he continued, "he is amazed by the little hand of the fetus as it comes out of the womb during surgery and grasps his finger. For the rest of the day he continued to look at his finger, asking himself who is that life that no one considers human, maybe not even himself, but that touched him.

"His amazement is the foundation of his curative ability."

"House never seems to be there for his patients," concluded Bellieni. "He is not a good doctor, he is full of pain; but he is rich with a meaningful question, which does not lead him to despair.

"For this reason he is impressive, in an age in which nothing seems to have value except one's own whims, especially in medicine."