5 Wars Raging Behind the Bioethics Debates

And What John Paul II Hoped for From the Laity

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ROME, DEC. 19, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a reflection on the challenges that Catholics today face in the realm of bioethics. It is written by a medical doctor who is now a Legionary of Christ priest and an assistant professor of bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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“Since neither the neonate nor the fish is a person, killing these beings is not morally as negative as killing a person.” -Peter Singer, professor of ethics at Princeton

«I think you should be able to do all you can to improve human life, I don’t see genetics as offending the gods, as I don’t think there are any gods out there.» –James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA.

The Christian right’s wrongheaded invocation of religion to restrict stem-cell research ranks up there with the medieval sanctioning of Galileo because his scientific views conflicted with church doctrine.” –Newsweek

What do these provocative statements have in common?  They all relate to the themes of life and death in the recent discipline called bioethics.  Shocking as these statements might seem, they come from influential shapers of opinion in today’s society.  Unfortunately, many Catholics are still unaware of the tremendous cultural debate that has gone on in the last 40 years.  Pope John Paul II has called this a struggle between the “Culture of Death” and the “Culture of Life.”   

Bioethical Issues: Tip of the Iceberg

Bioethics began 40 years ago when medical technology was making great strides.  Physicians, lawyers, politicians and religious leaders had to address the controversies that arose.  Abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and in vitro fertilization (IVF) were debated then, and they have not abated since. 

Medicine developed at an even faster pace in the next few decades, bringing with it novel and complex dilemmas.  Every day, the news reports on the latest advances on cloning, stem cells, genetic manipulation, and other cutting edge breakthroughs.  Debates are heard on every continent regarding the use of the abortion pill RU486, the morning after pill, condom to prevent AIDS, criteria to determine brain death, and the sales of organs.  At the same time, many legislatures have to decide on same sex marriages, protection of the environment, and the safety of genetically modified foods. 

On the horizon, the latest technologies are ushering in a new set of concerns: creating hybrids and chimeras, eugenic selection of embryos using preimplantational genetic diagnosis (PGD), designer babies, nanotechnology, neuroscience, regenerative medicine and rejuvenation, or interfacing the brain with computer.  It seems that there is no end to these novelties.  Can ethics catch up to the velocity of these innovations?

Most often than not, these topics can have political implications.  States, nations and international organizations have set up laws, guidelines and policies to determine the availability and the limits of these modern technologies.  Unfortunately, since their impact on our living is so great, these innovations are often tied to the financial interests of multinationals and other powerful stakeholders.  This often complicates ethical decisions.  Neutral, objective voices that are not influenced by monetary or political concerns are needed now more than ever.

At a first glance, it seems that there is no end to the list of bioethical issues confronting humanity these days.  Every new scientific breakthrough that brings a certain benefit will inevitably bring with it some ethical dilemma.  It is a double-edged sword.  In fact, the challenges of bioethics we have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. 

I am sure we have seen picture of icebergs.  The part that is above the waterline, the tip of the iceberg, is only 10% of the entire iceberg.  In the same way, bioethical problems are deeper that they appear.  New concerns will continue to surface as science pushes forward.  However, these questions are just the tip of the iceberg. 

A War of Ideas

The deeper problems that we often do not hear in the media — the 90% of the iceberg we don’t see — are the ones that we need to analyze.  They deal with human nature and dignity, the common good we all seek, our mortality and the meaning of suffering and death.  In other words, they are preeminently profound questions on human destiny, and are ultimately religious ones. 

In its long philosophical and theological tradition, the Catholic Church has come up with very valid reflections on these interrogatives.  However, there are serious challenges to these responses today, as the quotes at the beginning of the article indicate. What are the disagreements in this war of ideas?  I see five interrelated challenges in bioethics at the moment.

1)    Scientific positivism.  Since the Enlightenment, the idea that science is invariably progressive and beneficial to mankind has taken hold.  If this were the case, then no restrictions should ever be placed on any kind of research, especially ethical or religious limits.  Some calls this the “technological imperative” — science and technology must be allowed to go forward at all costs.  This is the rationale given by the British government to create human-animal hybrids two years ago.  Another example is President Obama’s recent decision to allow government funding on embryonic stem cell research even though alternatives are now available.  Scientific positivism is an ideology that is too optimistic about the power of science to cure all ills.  But in fact, science can be used for good or evil — as the atomic bomb has shown.  Science is not blind; its direction depends on the ethical integrity of individuals who make them.

2)    Technology and manipulation of human nature.  The scientific worldview is so prevalent nowadays that we tend to see everything in terms of physical matter.  We even risk seeing human beings as a bundle of cells, tissues and organs.  Technology has allowed us to manipulate nature for our personal comfort and well-being — airplanes, internet, medicine are some examples.  However, with the advance of biotechnology, we can modify our very selves, our own nature — to live longer, to have greater memory or IQ, to enhance our genetic makeup or athletic abilities, and to select similar traits for our offspring.  This possibility is unprecedented: by modifying ourselves, we modify our humanity.  But who is to decide what is truly human?  Are we not playing God when we try to shape man according to our whims?  If we seek only to improve physical or intellectual characteristics, are we not all the poorer in ignoring our spiritual dimensions — our ability to love and to dream, to act nobly and even heroically by sacrificing our lives when the situation demands it?

3)    Utilitarianism.  In a consumerist society, money and financial interests easily prevail over ethical concerns.  Utilitarianism is a theory that attaining the best possible consequences — that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number of persons — is considered the ethical course of action.  Therefore, if we could save the lives of one hundred persons by killing one individual, the ends will justify the means.  Hence, as the argument goes, killing surplus embryos leftover from IVF and use them in research is ethical because it may provide cures of diseases for many people. According to this reasoning, we should also allow taking organs from the comatose, those in persistent vegetative states, anencephalic babies and even prisoners waiting for executions.  This logic is already prevalent in some hospitals which, against the family wishes, refuse to treat those they considered as “futile care” because these patients are either too old, too sick or have very poor “quality of life.”  Would i
t not be better to let them die than prolong their “miserable existence” which also wastes valuable healthcare resources?

4)    Moral relativism.  We live in a globalized world.  People of different religions and cultures often live in the same neighborhood and work side by side.  This ethnic pluralism and multiculturalism has been unjustifiably translated into moral relativism.  It means that there are no absolutes in the moral life since every culture has a different conception of what is good and right.   Thus, moral decisions are conditioned by a person’s background, upbringing and culture and we cannot impose onto others their views of rightness and wrongness.  In pluralistic and cosmopolitan societies, laws must be kept to a minimal to maintain peace and promote tolerance of the differences.  Freedom is exalted as the greatest good and everyone should be given the choice to do what they like (e.g. abortion on demand).   This is in contrast to Catholic moral teaching which affirms the existence of a common human nature in the presence of cultural diversities.  This common nature allows everyone to discover the law written within the intimacy of his conscience to do what is right and avoid what is evil.

5)    Secularization.  In the past, religion played an important role in determining ethical behavior.  In western societies especially, the separation of Church and state was deemed a necessity because religion was considered divisive and causes of frequent violent conflicts.  Therefore, there has been an aggressive campaign to marginalize and discredit the religious voice in bioethics.  The last quote at the top portrays the Christian view as anti-science by appealing to the aforementioned scientific positivist mentality that is so common in our day.  Unfortunately, even Catholic educational institutes and universities have been affected by secularism.  Many of them have watered down their Catholic identity and no longer have the intellectual vigor to defend the Church’s teaching.  In fact, secular approaches to bioethics are as common in public universities as Catholic ones.

Culture of Death and Culture of Life

Academic bioethics is 90% secular at the present moment.  It is very much contrary to the Church’s understanding of the human person with a common nature and with intrinsic dignity.  It roundly rejects any recourse to past traditions, including the Hippocratic Oath that physicians used to swear upon graduation from medical schools.  Soaked in moral relativism and utilitarianism, secular bioethics can justify anything as ethical, even the most atrocious acts such as infanticide put forward by Peter Singer. 

This Australian professor of “ethics” who has taught generations of students in Princeton since 1999 is serious about killing babies when their parents do not want them.  He even published a book defending this idea as a natural extension of abortion practices.  His views are influential.  Besides teaching at a prestigious university, he has written dozen other books and sold over half a million copies.  The scary part is that he is not alone in this thinking, a long list of “ethicists” teaching in Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and other ivy-league universities share similar views on infanticide. 

We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.  If these ideas, the bulk of the ice under the water level, were to surface, there will be much more insidious proposals for the future of the human race. 

Fortunately, many people are finding the secular thinking a dead end street, no longer adequate to address today’s ethical demands.  Others are reevaluating the place of religion in ethics.  Since the Church has had centuries of experience in addressing the mystery of suffering and sickness, death and immortality, this wisdom is too precious to ignore.  The Church can be prophetic and speak out against injustices to defend the dignity and rights of every human person, irrespective of their race, backgrounds, physical conditions, and age, from conception to natural death.  It could well fulfill that non-partisan, neutral voice in the world that is unencumbered by financial or political interests.

Christians too, can play an important part in this struggle by their prayers and service.  The work of serving the weakest, poorest and most neglected of the society—the disabled, the abandoned, women in distress, drug addicts, orphans, the aged and dying—is an eloquent testimony that every member of the human race has inherent dignity. 

There is also a special calling for Catholics to defend life by studying and spreading the Church’s teaching on these matters.  The laity, especially health care professionals, lawyers, politicians and scientists should update themselves on the different Church pronouncements on life issues.  Now more than ever, there is a need of renewal in Catholic education to re-emphasize these perennial truths of the human person.  Catholic intellectuals must stand up and engage the secularists in public debates, publications and conferences. 

With the immensity of the problems facing humanity, we can no longer remain idle.  This, then, is the challenge that Pope John Paul II has called upon us — to create a “Culture of Life.”

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Fr. Joseph Tham, LC is Assistant Professor of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical university in Rome, Italy.  He practiced as a family physician before becoming a priest, and now teaches bioethics. He can be reached at jtham@legionaries.org

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