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Quality-of-Life vs. Sanctity-of-Life

Interview With Bioethicist Father Víctor Pajares

ROME, MAY 31, 2005 (Zenit) - Misconceptions about "quality of life" are having deadly consequences, as seen in the recent case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who succumbed after having her feeding tube removed.

To learn more about the matter, we interviewed Father Víctor Pajares, a bioethicist who teaches at the School of Bioethics of the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Why did you choose the topic of "quality of life" for your doctoral thesis in bioethics?

Father Pajares: Well, there are personal reasons, like my own background and choices that suit my research and former studies. But there are also objective reasons, and one that has been very much present is the fact that quality-of-life was an idea that would surface sooner or later in every single subject I undertook.

"Quality of life" struck me as a constant point that well-known bioethicists employed to justify their stances on abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and so on. It's as simple as opening a book of Peter Singer's and waiting until the magical words appear.

Q: Do you think that the expression "quality of life" has been hijacked by certain bioethicists, its meaning distorted?

Father Pajares: In fact, many scholars who deal with this issue have avoided the "either-or" kind of approach. In this sense, you don't have to set the ideas of quality of life and sanctity of life against each other, as if one necessarily excluded the other.

Q: Could you expound on this line of thought?

Father Pajares: The easiest way to understand this is to refer to the papal magisterium.

In "Evangelium Vitae," the most bioethical encyclical so far, John Paul II mentioned "quality of life." The Holy Father was careful to outline a nuanced teaching.

He warned, for instance, about when "the so-called 'quality of life' is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions -- interpersonal, spiritual and religious -- of existence." It's obvious that we can't be at ease with such an idea.

The Holy Father spells out the consequences of this narrow and radical concept, which sees suffering as "an inescapable burden of human existence" which can never be "a factor of possible personal growth," and therefore is "rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided."

We could name this the "unbridled" idea of quality of life. But it's not the only choice we have.

By quality of life can also be meant the endeavor to meet people's expectations, especially in more developed societies, which "are no longer concentrated so much on problems of survival as on the search for an overall improvement of living conditions." It's clear that there is nothing wrong with this cultural development.

Q: But if this is so, don't we still have to choose between one of the two descriptions of quality of life? Don't they exclude each other?

Father Pajares: I think they are set at different levels. The first is more health-related, while the second is more environment-related.

Furthermore, the first one is rather hedonistic, with all the negative consequences that it entails, while the second is not. Coming back to my previous answer, the division we are to avoid is choosing between sanctity of life and quality of life, as if there were no way to reconcile them.

To illustrate this point, I would like to recall a statement President Ronald Reagan issued after the Baby Doe scandal. This involved a baby born with Down syndrome whose intestinal blockage wasn't repaired, and who died on that account.

Reagan said: "Every legislator, every doctor, and every citizen needs to recognize that the real issue is whether to affirm and protect the sanctity of all human life, or to embrace a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not. As a nation, we must choose between the sanctity-of-life ethic and the quality-of-life ethic."

If you pay close attention to this declaration, the key word here is "ethic," where there would be a sanctity-of-life ethic that protects all human life, and a quality-of-life ethic that values some but not all human lives.

An ethic that is wholly centered on the quality of life, and doesn't consider the sanctity of life, values only some lives. But this doesn't mean a sanctity-of-life ethic cannot take into account at all the quality of our lives.

Q: So, this leaves us with the question: Is there a wholesome ethic that can combine both elements: quality and sanctity of life?

Father Pajares: Exactly, and we can identify it in the ...

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