Bioethicists Look at Issues of Globalization and Dying

Dr. William Sullivan on a Colloquium in Toronto

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TORONTO, SEPT. 26, 2003 ( More than 50 bioethicists from around the globe gathered together during the summer to discuss the relationship between bioethics and globalization, as well as the treatment of the elderly and dying.

Directors and representatives from Catholic bioethics institutes met at an international colloquium in July to share perspectives, plan research and initiatives, and make a general statement on key bioethical issues.

The Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute was the host of the meeting. Its director, Dr. William Sullivan, holds a doctorate in philosophy and is also a physician with a family practice at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Sullivan shared with ZENIT the vision of the institute and international colloquium, and the state of bioethics in general.

Q: What are the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and the international colloquium?

Sullivan: The Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute is a research institute affiliated with the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Its mission is to promote and protect the dignity of the human person through interdisciplinary ethics research and education in health care and the life sciences.

The institute was founded in 2001 with the support of Canadian Catholic bishops, Catholic hospitals and academic institutions, and Catholic lay organizations from across Canada.

The international colloquium, which was held in Toronto in July, provided an opportunity for directors and representatives of Catholic bioethics institutes from around the globe to discuss pressing issues on care of the frail elderly and the dying. The Canadian Association of the Order of Malta and the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute sponsored the colloquium.

There were 57 invited participants from 46 institutes and 19 countries, on all five continents.

Q: The colloquium was called «Culture of Life and Globalization: Challenges and Directions.» What is the relationship between bioethics and globalization?

Sullivan: With its transnational and transcultural perspectives and influences, globalization raises new questions for bioethicists.

For example, how can we address the disparities among nations in their access to health care and social and spiritual supports for aging and dying persons? In turn, the recognition of such disparities has drawn attention to the extent to which wealthy nations tend to deny the reality of human finitude and death — and consequently, place an undue emphasis on technology.

Also, in an era of globalization, it is becoming apparent that there is an increasing number of bioethical questions — such as those pertaining to genetics and gene patents, stem cell research and global markets — that cross all borders and religious beliefs and concern each of us, wherever we may live.

Q: Can you explain a comment you made recently that science and technology seem to be the new opium of the masses?

Sullivan: I was drawing attention to the temptation today to turn to the medical sciences and technologies to eradicate all human suffering and even death. Thus, science could be described as the «religion» of our day — that in which many persons increasingly place all their hope and faith.

Perhaps unwittingly, many are driven today by what might be called a «technical imperative.» Such an imperative dictates that if we can make scientific or technological advances, then as scientists we must make them and as patients we must make use of them.

The «technical imperative» functions as an opiate that is at odds with a Catholic understanding of the human person, whose true flourishing requires more than bodily well being. Indeed, at the end of the day, there is no technical solution to the questions raised by human suffering and death. Science and technology cannot provide us with the answers to life’s deepest questions.

Our zeal for technology is nurtured by a culture that is described as «death denying» and that often values efficiency or pragmatism above all else. However, in denying death we also deny ourselves the opportunity to ask questions about the very meaning of life — and death.

Many at the colloquium agreed that it is now time for Catholic bioethicists to initiate a public dialogue on the proper ends of medical treatment and technologies. Such a dialogue must ask, «How can we take advantage of today’s medical advances without compromising the dignity of the human beings whom science is meant to serve?»

At the same time we must also ask, «What can we reasonably demand of science and medical technologies and what are their proper limits?» These are questions of the utmost importance not only to Catholic bioethicists, but to all Catholics, and indeed, to all of humanity.

Q: What are some important issues that bioethicists overlook?

Sullivan: Two of the most significant and exciting accomplishments of the international colloquium were the identification of research issues that bioethicists have tended to overlook and the setting of research priorities for Catholic bioethics institutes around the globe.

First, there is a need for further reflection and discussion on controversial issues in clinical medicine, such as artificial hydration and nutrition, and medical decision-making on behalf of cognitively impaired patients.

Second, it is necessary to consider ethical issues in a broader framework that takes seriously the demands of the Church’s teaching on social justice. This implies attention to issues such as the allocation of resources and the organization of health care.

Third, we must articulate more clearly a Christian philosophy of palliative care and reflect critically on the nature of appropriate standards of care in an ever more technical environment.

Fourth, we need to advance thinking on what would be a fruitful methodology for integrating the various areas of human inquiry that are necessary for interdisciplinary collaboration in bioethics. The research questions in bioethics are typically too broad and multifaceted to be undertaken by any one individual or even by any one academic department.

Q: What are key bioethics issues in the months and years ahead?

Sullivan: It is no secret that populations around the world are aging. Given the changing global demographics, in the months and years ahead questions relating to care of the elderly and the dying will be among the most pressing for bioethicists. That is why we chose that topic as the focus of our colloquium.

At the same time, it will be essential — especially for Catholic bioethicists — to continue to develop and articulate cogent philosophical and theological responses to the ever-seductive alternatives of utilitarianism, consumerism and materialism.

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