Arcbhishop Foley´s Address on Media and Bioethics

Political Correctness Producing Blind Spots, He Warns

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VATICAN CITY, NOV. 18, 2001 ( Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, on Friday addressed the international conference on «Health and Power.» Here is the text of the speech.

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Power in Health Care Research and the Mass Media

After the tragedies of the mid-twentieth century in which people were condemned for war crimes for their experimentation on human subjects, and the mass media rightly reflected the outrage in public opinion regarding such atrocities, it would seem that there should exist a wellspring of sympathy for those who seek to preserve and protect the dignity of human life.

Such, however, is not always the case.

While remarkable technical advances have been made in all manner of biological and genetic research, such advances have not always been paralleled by an unconditional respect for the sanctity of human life at all stages of development from conception through natural death.

In fact, it would seem that the media have sometimes been conditioned to view criticism of certain types of research and experimentation not as a laudable defense of human rights but as obscurantist opposition to scientific progress.

Let us consider some examples.

Stem cell research, the use of embryonic, umbilical, or adult spinal cells for the possible treatment of Parkinson´s and Alzheimer´s diseases, has elicited great interest.

Many scientists consider that the optimal way to obtain such cells is to destroy embryos conceived through «in vitro» fertilization.

You would think that the media might, in their coverage, consider:

1) first, whence do such embryos come;

2) second, what are such embryos;

3) third, can they legitimately be destroyed, even for the apparent good of another?

The answer to the first question is that such embryos come from the union of a female egg and a male sperm outside of the normal method of such union through sexual, especially marital, intercourse.

Does it ever occur to the media to ask: is this right? Are we morally entitled to do everything that we physically can do? What are the consequences of such actions for society, for marriage, for human love?

The answer to the second question is that, if the embryo is the result of the union of a human female egg and a human male sperm, then the result is an embryonic human person. If this is true, is not the direct destruction of such an entity for the use of its component parts tantamount to an act of murder, of infanticide and of consequent body snatching or plundering of body parts?

The answer to the third question is included in the answer to the second. The direct taking of innocent human life is always and everywhere wrong from the first moment of conception until the moment of natural death. If the foregoing principle is not true, then what are the consequences for society? Who is safe? At what age? Under what circumstances?

Instead of asking these very questions, the media often portray those who raise such questions as fanatics eager to condemn those who suffer from terrible diseases to lives without relief.

The media seldom ask the question of why frozen embryos exist in the first place — and, because they seldom ask it, they see no difficulty in deliberately producing new embryos so that further scientific research might proceed.

Thus, from a policy of using cast-off living human beings for scientific research, they are willing to tolerate and even support a policy of deliberately producing living human beings to supply laboratory needs.

George Orwell wrote a book entitled «1984»; that was nothing in contrast to 2001, and, in this case, the result is not a space odyssey to explore new boundaries for human development but the deliberate production of human lives in order to destroy them and, in so doing, to destroy all moral boundaries of respect for the sacredness of human life.

Closely related, I think, to the question of harvesting and of producing embryos for stem cell research is the question of euthanasia. When is grandmother no longer considered useful? When does the ending of her pain become not her gain but that of those who inherit her wealth or plunder her body for parts to be used in others?

Do the media, which seek to emphasize the end of pain for those who are suffering, ever offer a reflection on the meaning of human life and on its sacredness?

I fear that, from mid-20th century media, which saw and condemned a mechanistic and instrumental view of the human person for what it is, a violation of intrinsic human dignity, we have come to a media situation in which there is no recognition of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the weak in the womb or near the tomb.

We are witnessing the canonization of a Darwinian survival of the fittest through the destruction of the defenseless, and the media — which should be the «whistle blowers» in society, to warn us about the dangers ahead — have instead become accomplices in the silent slaughter of the youngest, of the weakest and of the oldest in our society.

I was in the United States last summer when President George W. Bush gave his speech about his policy regarding stem cell research. I frankly thought it was a masterpiece. He reviewed the moral and scientific situation and said that he would favor government support for stem cell research on cells taken from the umbilical cord and from the appropriate organs of consenting adults.

He also said he would allow funding of research from what he called stem cell lines which had already been developed from embryos which had already died. In other words, he would not support government funding of that research which would result in the direct taking of innocent human life.

In fairness to the media, they praised him and admitted that they were surprised by the moral sophistication of his reasoning; it was obvious that they were expecting a much less intellectually adept treatment of the question.

Government leaders and judges in the United States have not always provided such sound moral leadership, and indeed some population control policies in the foreign aid programs of the United States continue to give offense and instill resentment in the recipient nations.

For example, former President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines told me on one occasion that her government had been pressured by the then government of the United States to accept the distribution of contraceptives as a condition for receiving economic assistance. She indicated that she declined on moral grounds — but stories such as these are seldom reported in the media because they go counter to the current line of «political correctness».

I mention this example because contraceptives pills and devices are often represented by donor nations as health care assistance, and the combined economic power of donor nations and the media power of «political correctness» put tremendous pressure on the governments of recipient nations to make moral concessions for economic gains.

Now, of course, the media have other interests, and the subtleties of stem cell research and the controversies over population control policies have given way to the much more graphic coverage of terrorism and war.

In media coverage of medical treatment, however, it is most important to remember the power of advertising.

How can we expect critical coverage of new medicines or new treatments or even of government distribution at home and abroad of contraceptive pills and devices when pharmaceutical companies spend so much on advertising in media which are now struggling to survive in the face of a worldwide economic recession?

I know that pressure — whether direct or more subtle and indirect — can be and is sometimes brought to bear not to give unfavorable coverage to certain items because suc
h coverage would hurt the interests of advertisers and perhaps of the publication or network itself. In a very small way, as an editor, I was occasionally subject to such pressures — which, thank God, I think I resisted successfully. In fairness, I should note that, in my case, such pressure was not brought by pharmaceutical companies.

When moral objections are brought against certain medicines or treatments, however, it is interesting to note that moral objections do not bring income to publications or networks; the new medicines and treatments often do bring such income. Moral objections can be considered by both pharmaceutical and publishing executives as petty annoyances not worthy of consideration, especially not in light of the vast profits to be made with new drugs and the advertising and promotional expenditures connected with them.

I acknowledge and praise the great advances made in medical technology and in the development of new drugs. I know how costly such research must be and how necessary it is to protect patents for new medicines so that pharmaceutical companies are not discouraged from investment in further research for the benefit of the human race.

It is interesting to note, however, that you do not see many media campaigns supporting generic rather than specific drugs or medicines — even though such generic drugs could save consumers and governments millions, even billions of dollars. One reason that generic drugs can save millions for consumers is that there are no expensive advertising campaigns for them — and this is why they are often overlooked by media which live from advertising.

Regarding media coverage of health care and indeed biotechnological matters, I would recommend several basic principles:

— first, have journalists who are prepared not only in medical technology, but also in moral philosophy;

— second, never, never, never let considerations of actual or potential advertising income influence editorial decisions (at Time magazine, this used to be called the «separation of church and state» — of editorial content from advertising — a separation which I have seen eroding even in that publication);

— third, do not equate technological capability with moral acceptability; not every technological breakthrough is necessarily a moral triumph; thus, do readers the favor of subjecting technological advances to valid moral criticism;

— fourth, do not become prisoners of political correctness in publishing only what people want to hear.

At the beginning of these reflections, I mentioned that the media in the mid-20th century were not afraid to identify certain forms of medical experimentation as atrocities — and perhaps such reporting was made easier because the experiments were often sponsored by hostile powers on helpless prisoners of war or on innocent civilians kept in concentration camps.

Such experiments are still going on, however, on embryos which are destroyed so that research can take place and, as some media have occasionally reported, on human «guinea pigs» who may sometimes not realize that their rights are being violated or who have not been able to give informed consent. I am thinking particularly of mentally retarded persons who, in some societies, have been sterilized and of the terminally ill and elderly who run the risk of being assisted to a premature death.

When our Pontifical Council for Social Communications published its study in «Ethics in Communications,» it emphasized three principles: truth, the rights of the human person and the common good. In the coverage of health care and of biotechnology, these three principles have a special importance:

— first, it is necessary to know the truth — scientific, economic and moral

— about medical discoveries and health care policies;

— second, the rights of those who are suffering and especially the inviolable right to life must be treated as paramount;

— third, the implications for the common good and not merely the economic profit for a few must be considered.

Jesus has said that the words, «I was sick and you visited me,» will be among the special titles to enter into eternal glory.

The most important power in health care is not governmental power or media power or even medical power; it is the power of God and the moral power which comes from seeking to do His will in caring for the sick, the troubled and the elderly. We truly need doctors, nurses, technicians and indeed scientists who see in the face of the suffering the image of Christ.

The media coverage of those motivated by this moral power can do much to stimulate others to give that human, compassionate care so needed by those who ought to be not objects of scientific and medical experimentation but subjects worthy of our love and concern as they pass through a personal crisis on their pilgrimage to eternal life with Jesus, our suffering Savior, who triumphed not only over sin, but also over death.

Thus, the media coverage of the sick and of those who care for them should not only inform our minds, but also touch our hearts to unleash in the service of the poor and sick what the late Mother Teresa rightly identified as the power of love.

(Most Rev.) John P. Foley
Titular Archbishop of Neapolis in Proconsulari
Pontifical Council for Social Communications

[text distributed by Vatican Press Office]

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