‘Voluntary’ victims deserve sympathy

by Max Rust

Society must acknowledge that there are both innocent and voluntary victims of illnesses, said a University alumnus and visiting professor Thursday at a seminar sponsored by the Program in Human Rights and Medicine.
“The mark of a civilized society is compassion for a victim just because he’s hurt,” said Velvl Green, a former University professor and current professor of epidemiology and public health at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. But, he added, though sympathy should be the natural reaction to illness, society must also acknowledge that often the sickness could have been consciously prevented.
About two dozen people attended Green’s seminar titled, “Voluntary Victims”. It focused on the issue of a society’s role in dealing with sick people who have contributed to their illnesses through their own voluntary behavior.
Some of the traits that he mentioned as voluntary behavior were common activities like smoking, overeating and sitting in the sun.
Green pointed out changes in the perception of the “victim” — changes that he believes were brought on by a closer observation of the leading causes of death in this country.
“When you look at these conditions, you find that most of them have components which are very closely associated with human behavior,” Green said.
Green said that as the study of epidemiology grew more behavioral, traits of victims became evident. Identifying these traits further clarifies the distinction between the innocent victim and the voluntary victim. Green emphasized that a community often takes the burden of paying for the treatment of voluntary victims and that this responsibility must be taken.
The relationship between the voluntary victim and society surfaced as Green addressed the issues of sympathy and compassion, identifying four main factors that affect sympathy: the illness, the person, the rarity of the situation and how long the person has been sick.
“As a human being, I must feel for my fellow human being who is suffering. This is particularly true of medicine,” Green said.
He went on to say that in the past few years, rather than just making straight A’s, medical school candidates have had to demonstrate greater levels of human compassion.
Green then addressed the audience with a few ethical questions that he said might bring out any unknown biases.
One of the questions dealt with deciding who in a motorcycle accident — the rider with a helmet or the rider without — should be treated first in the emergency room.
Another scenario involved a new drug for AIDS treatment, and the audience was asked to decide who should receive the medicine — the “innocent” patient or the “drug-abusing” one.
“Oversimplification might be good for politicians, but not for doctors,” said Green, who explained that there is no room for bias in a medical setting.
Green is currently on a month-long sabbatical in Minnesota and will be traveling throughout the country giving lectures.