May 30, 2024

The bioethics of obesity

Hi there,

I wrote a story below in which I originally mentioned the vomitorium, a well-known feature of Roman imperial banquets, er, well-known to me, because I have discovered that it never existed. There was gluttony, of course, gobs of it, and it is described in emetic detail by some of the classical authors. But there were no vomitoria where satiated guests could disgorge their flamingoes’ tongues and return for a serving of peacock brains (a menu mentioned in the Life of Vitellius, by Suetonius).

However, what the Romans failed to have invented, the Americans have developed – a portable stomach pump attached to a stomach peg so that morbidly obese people can eat but still lose weight. If you respond to this device, called AspireAssist, by saying Yuk, your feelings are shared by some obesity experts. “People often wish they could just eat and make the calories go away,” one commented. “It was only a matter of time before someone came up with this.”

What are the bioethics of such a device – and a whole range of remedies which are being developed to treat obesity? It is a complex area, but in many cases, technology is being substituted for human agency. It’s easier to have a stomach pump than to strength one’s will-power to change eating habits. Obesity has been described as one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. My hunch is that it will be a growing area of bioethical debate.


Michael Cook
Are there limits?