Is Erasing Horror Immoral?


Research on using the anti-hypertension drug propranolol to lessen the emotional effects of bad memories increasingy looks like it might just work. This is not an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind scenario; the actual memories are not erased. The drug basically lowers the emotional wallop that memories of horrors like murders, rapes, car accidents, war wounds, and so forth carry.

Some bioethicists, like the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, Leon Kass, are wary of using such drugs. Kass acknowledged, "The impulse is to help people to not fall apart. You don't want to condemn that." However, Kass added, "But that you would treat these things with equanimity, the horrible things of the world, so that they don't disturb you … you'd cease to be a human being." He further warned, "It's the morning-after pill for just about anything that produces regret, remorse, pain, or guilt."

As the AP story reports,

Some critics suggest that rape victims would be less able to testify against attackers if their memories were blunted, or at least that defense attorneys would argue that.

"Medical concerns trump legal concerns. I wouldn't withhold an effective treatment from somebody because of the possibility they may have to go to court a year later and their testimony be challenged. We wouldn't do that in any other area of medicine," [Harvard psychiatric research Roger] Pitman said. "The important thing to know about this drug is it doesn't put a hole in their memory. It doesn't create amnesia."

Pitman's point that we don't oblige stabbing victims to go to court with their gashes still bleeding, so why should we require rape victims to go to court with their psychic wounds untreated, seems reasonable to me. To hold perpetrators responsible, people should remember horror, but they shouldn't have to suffer for it forever if they choose not to.