Luke Gormally on Human Dignity and Bioethics — Part 2

Researcher Tells Why Britain Has Gone Down the Slippery Slope

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LONDON, JULY 11, 2003 ( Differing views of human dignity have dire consequences in the field of bioethics, says a leading British bioethicist.

In this second part of an interview with Luke Gormally, the senior research fellow at the Linacre Center for Health Care Ethics also talks about why Britain has embraced controversial medical procedures that manipulate human life.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday (see

Q: The difference between the Pope’s view of human dignity and the world’s view of it — how does this play out in bioethical issues?

Gormally: The clearest way to understand the contrast between the Church’s response to bioethical issues and standard secularist responses is precisely by reference to the contrast between the Church’s understanding of human dignity — which the Holy Father expounds — and the secularist understanding of human dignity.

If human beings, as living bodily beings, possess connatural dignity just in virtue of their existence as human beings, then recognition of that dignity requires, for example, that we should not intentionally kill innocent human beings: so no destructive experimentation on human embryos, no abortion or infanticide or euthanasia.

Nor should we instrumentalize human beings: so there should be no non-therapeutic experimentation on non-consenting subjects, and human beings should not be generated in ways which treat them as products, only conditionally acceptable, depending on the desires of others.

The dignity of a child calls for unconditional acceptance of that child. The only mode of generating a child conducive to unconditional acceptance of the child is through normal marital intercourse expressive of the unreserved self-giving love of spouses who treat each other as irreplaceable. Spouses who conceive a child as the fruit of truly unreserved self-giving love are disposed unconditionally to accept that child.

The logic of the secularist understanding of human dignity leads to starkly contrasting views on the sample of bioethical issues to which I have referred. If one thinks that human beings possess no connatural dignity and acquire a kind of dignity only in virtue of developing the abilities to decide what is to count as worthwhile and to choose accordingly, then a rather large number of human beings are going to appear to lack dignity: the embryo and the fetus, infants, those suffering from mental impairments, and those whose intellectual abilities have been damaged through dementias.

Unless there are adults who choose to value these persons and are in a position to protect them, then the characteristic secularist view of their lives is that they are disposable. Hence secularist defenses of embryo experimentation, abortion, and non-voluntary euthanasia — carried out either by poisoning or by starvation — of the mentally immature or impaired. And because human beings in the earliest phases of their development are said to lack intrinsic dignity, modes of generating them which treat them as manipulable products — IVF, cloning — are regarded as entirely acceptable.

Q: On another topic: Britain seems to be moving very quickly into the «brave new world» of manipulation of human life, as seen by its support of stem cell research, «therapeutic» cloning, etc. Why is this happening in Britain of all places?

Gormally: Utilitarianism has been an increasingly powerful influence on public policy in Britain since the 19th century. Both Bentham and J.S. Mill thought of themselves as developing an ethic suited to shaping public policy and legislation, and there are many, both in government circles and the academy, whose ethical outlook is emphatically utilitarian in character.

The 1984 Warnock Report [the report of a committee established by the government to advise it on human fertilization and embryology, and on which the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act was based] was strongly influenced by a utilitarian outlook, which assumed, in making calculations of benefit, that the human embryo counted for considerably less than the satisfaction of adult desires.

When I speak here of «adult desires» I am not just thinking of the desires of infertile couples to have children. The Warnock Report recommended the generation of human embryos precisely for destructive scientific research. The government’s more recent promotion of stem cell research and cloning is completely in line with the central assumptions of the Warnock Report.

Warnock thought that as a matter of public policy one might have to temper the logic of utilitarian reasoning if public opinion were to find its conclusions too repugnant. But sentiments of repugnance had already been considerably eroded in Britain, at the time the Warnock Committee reported, by 17 years of permissive abortion practice.

It is a significant index of the moral climate in Britain that abortion legislation has not been center stage in the contest between the main parties in the way it has been in the U.S.A. There is every appearance of an establishment consensus that the abortion issue has essentially been settled.

Thirty-six years of permissive abortion practice and 30 years or so of embryo experimentation — at first unregulated, now regulated — have considerably reduced public repugnance at the prospects of cloning and stem cell research which the Labor government have promoted in their desire to retain investment in this country by the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

It is regrettably unsurprising, one has to say, that the utilitarian temper of public life in Britain is as conducive as it is to providing a hospitable environment for the «brave new world.»

Q: At the forthcoming Linacre Centre Conference later this month, what do you think will be the most pressing topics of concern?

Gormally: Readers can find the program of the Conference on the Linacre Center Web site — This year’s conference has got a tightly focused general theme: «Cooperation, Complicity and Conscience.» In other words, it is concerned with a type of problem Catholics and others face in working with those of differing and often opposed moral outlook.

Doctors, nurses, biomedical scientists, lawyers, politicians, public policy advisers, representatives of the Church, more or less standardly find themselves in one or other kind of collaborative relationship with others — who may or may not be colleagues. In those relationships they will be expected from time to time, perhaps frequently, to assist others in ways which are morally problematic.

The conference is centrally concerned with assisting a variety of professionals to define clearly in their own minds the limits of morally acceptable collaboration with colleagues and others. In a pluralistic society, in which increasingly intolerant secularists wield influence, the issue is pressing.

There will be papers from a number of distinguished speakers, including: professors Jane Adolphe and Richard Myers, of the Ave Maria School of Law; Richard Doerflinger, of the U.S. bishops’ conference; professor Anthony Fisher, OP, of the John Paul II Institute, in Melbourne; professor John Finnis, of Oxford and Notre Dame; professor Robert George, of Princeton; Dr John Haas, of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in the U.S.; professor Cathleen Kaveny, of Notre Dame; professor Neil Scolding, of Bristol; professor Martin Stone, of Leuven; Sister Carol Taylor, of Georgetown; and Dr. Helen Watt, of the Linacre Center.

The conference is designed to attract a wide range of professionals. It will take place at Queens’ College, Cambridge, July 24-26. It is still possible
to book for the conference, through the Linacre Web site.

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