Not a week goes by without some news about conflicting opinions in the area of bioethics: abortion or euthanasia; what to do regarding genetic defects or what is licit when it comes to assisted reproduction methods.
Underlying the media stories are major conflicts regarding the ethical principles that should guide decisions and it is this debate that is the focus of a recent book by Australian-born, long resident in Canada, ethicist Margaret Somerville.
Somerville, a professor in the faculty of law and of medicine at McGill University, has published a collection of essays in “Bird on a Wire: Battles About Values in the Culture Wars,” (Mc Gill-Queen’s University Press).
Somerville starts by affirming that values are interconnected so that in unravelling values about, say abortion, we also unravel values about death and euthanasia. Using a familiar term, she said we are experiencing “culture wars:” battles about values.
There is an essential question we must all consider in this debate, Somerville explained: “What are the values we must embrace if we, as individuals and as societies, are to maintain respect for human life, dignity, and the essence of our humanness?”
This question opens up further inquiries, she added, such as what it means to be human and why being human is so important.
We can no longer assume, as we once could, that we all share more or less the same fundamental values and we cannot impose them through coercion. Instead, Somerville urged, we need to create the metaphysical and even emotional spaces where people can enter and encounter values we hope will prevail.
One central point Somerville said she wanted to address is that we are in a conflict between respect for individual autonomy and the protection of the common good, with the balance swinging dangerously toward the former – a situation that needs correction.
What Somerville termed as an “intense individualism” now dominates some Western secular societies. This situation could be due to a decline in religious belief, she explained, as religion involves relating both to the Other and through that relationship to other humans.
Among other things, intense individualism gives rise to personal autonomy and self-determination, which has favored the acceptance of euthanasia. “Almost all the justifications for legalizing euthanasia focus primarily on individual dying persons who want it and on their right to ‘choose what happens to themselves,’” Somerville commented.
Independent of the matter of euthanasia, death has been institutionalized, depersonalized, dehumanized and despiritualized, she said. In this context asking for euthanasia can be a response to “intense pre-mortem loneliness.”
As Somerville observed in the book’s concluding chapter, if “one owns one’s life and no one else has the right to interfere with one’s decisions in that regard, then respect for the person’s autonomy is a sufficient justification for euthanasia.” Therefore, we arrive at the situation in the Netherlands where being old and tired of life is being proposed as sufficient grounds for allowing euthanasia.
There are many perspectives from which the discussion over values can be approached – legal, ethical, or religious, and the answers they provide are not necessarily consistent, Somerville commented. As well, the perspective of each individual often has a major impact on which values are seen to be ethical or unethical.
The language we use to describe the debates over values also plays an important role, Somerville observed. Words, she said, “are weapons in our battles about values and culture wars.”
One strategy used in debates, for example, is to label individuals as religious and consequently dismiss their arguments from consideration without having addressed the substance of the points raised.
“Our perception of an unborn child as either a ‘problem’ or a ‘miracle’ will radically alter our decisions about the ethics of our behavior in regard to that child,” Somerville noted.
One of the book’s essays looked at the place of religion in the public square. Too often religion is being banished from the public square, or at least a growing number of people are arguing that it should be.
In addition there is a growing trend to deny freedom of conscience to those with conflicting values, due to an aggressive secularism with totalitarian tendencies.
We can and should, Somerville appealed, cross the secular/religious divide and also the science/religious divide in order to find a shared ethics.
In this context she criticized both the fundamentalist religious people and also those she termed the “fundamentalist neo-atheists.”
“Like all fundamentalists, the neo-atheists want first to impose their views on everyone else,” Somerville said.
She also made the point that secularism is not neutral. “It too is a belief system used to bind people together. And, if despite being a belief system, secularism is not excluded from the public square, then religious voices should not be expelled on that basis.”
Those who seek to exclude religion from the public square have confused the concepts of freedom of religion, freedom for religion, and freedom from religion. The first two freedoms are valid expressions of the separation of church and state, but the third is not, Somerville added.
Other essays in the book considered the subjects of euthanasia, human dignity and the relationships of ethics and law.
At the center of many of the issues raised by Somerville is the question that is the title of one of the book’s chapters: “Is Every Life Beautiful?”
Beauty is much more than physical appearance, youth or even health, she affirmed. Life is beautiful, she explained, “in the sense that all human life has intrinsic dignity and must be respected.”
In a marked contrast with the preceding affirmation Somerville argued that the world’s most dangerous idea is that there is nothing special about being human and that therefore humans do not deserve special respect, compared to say animals or even robots.
How can we help people to see that all human life is beautiful? Somerville replied to her question by saying we can do this by helping people to experience amazement, wonder and awe, in other words an experience of transcendence.
Failing to do this risks being unable to find meaning in life, which Somerville concluded “would be the ultimate tragedy for individuals and societies, present and future.”