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Faith, Reason and Bioethics

Interview With Director of Linacre Center


LONDON, JUNE 19, 2007 (Zenit) - Rational arguments need to take priority in the debate on bioethical issues, says the director of the Linacre Center for Healthcare Ethics.

Helen Watt, of the only Catholic bioethics center in the United Kingdom and Ireland, recently spoke to us about the opportunity Catholics now have to engage modern Europe in an authentically grounded ethical debate.

The Linacre Center's International Conference is being held July 5-7 on the topic of "Incapacity and Care: Moral Problems in Healthcare and Research."

Q: How is the ethical debate on health care issues in Europe today different from 30 years ago?

Watt: Thirty years ago, in vitro fertilization was a new and shocking development -- as were the embryo experiments which paved the way for it. Now IVF is standard procedure for anyone who wants to have a child, and does not object to the manufacturing process and attitudes involved. The embryonic child resulting is treated more like a possession than like a new member of the family.

Often the debate is now between extreme libertarians, who defend a frankly consumerist attitude to medicine and parenthood, and those who want to set some limits, but lack the moral framework they need to do so in a credible way. This means that the principled approach offered by the Church often gets pushed to the sidelines -- though fortunately not always.

Q: Where are the main battle lines now drawn with regard to bioethical issues in Europe?

Watt: One battle line is euthanasia, by act and by omission. Another is respect for unborn life, in relation to abortion, IVF and embryo experimentation.

Another battle line is, of course, marriage and parenthood. This last area is closely linked to IVF -- as in, for example, the bid to expunge the requirement in British law that fertility doctors must take account of the child's need for a father.

While some in Britain hope to tighten abortion laws, other countries in the European Union are under pressure to "liberalize" restrictive laws on abortion. There is also a strong push for European Union funding of embryonic stem cell research.

The hope is that countries which have recently joined the European Union, such as Poland, will bring fresh insights to the rest of Europe, rather than be themselves caught up in the secular/consumerist drift.

Q: What are the signs of hope that the trend toward the legalization of euthanasia and stem cell research will be halted?

Watt: The Dutch experience has shown how close the link is between voluntary and nonvoluntary euthanasia, once some lives are deemed not worth living.

While Belgium followed its neighbor and legalized euthanasia, similar legislation was recently defeated in Britain by a coalition of pro-life and palliative care groups -- although there is certainly a need for vigilance with regard to euthanasia by omission.

On the stem cell front, there are wonderful advances being made with adult and umbilical cord stem cells -- ethical alternatives to the use of cells from destroyed human embryos. It's an exciting time for adult stem cell researchers, who can point to many actual treatments of human patients.

Italy is one country that has made huge strides in enacting laws protecting human embryos, showing that progress in this area can be made even after many years of permissive practice.

Q: The issues of IVF, human cloning and embryo screening all revolve around the status of early human life. Why is it so difficult to convince people of the humanity of the embryo, or even to keep it in the common consciousness as an issue?

Watt: It's a combination of pragmatism and a failure of imagination. On the one hand, people want to be able to keep doing embryo experiments and using abortifacient contraception. On the other hand, the embryo is challenging in its appearance, despite the powerful case for its continuity with the older human being.

We live in an image-led age. The embryo is small, and looks different from the adult -- which does not, of course, prevent it having human rights and interests, just like any other child.

The kind of emotional engagement that ultrasound makes possible for older unborn children is often not possible with the embryo. There is a need to appeal to reason rather than just to the emotions.

Q: How can the Church better educate Catholics about contentious ethical issues?

Watt: The Linacre Center specializes in providing arguments for the Catholic view of bioethics which do not require a prior acceptance of the Catholic faith.

We aim to show that the merits of this view can be recognized by anyone of good will using their reason. This approach encourages a robust realism that reaches out to people of other faiths and of no faith.

Recently, Benedict XVI spoke of the need to rediscover the natural law tradition, especially in an age of skepticism and relativism. He was, I think, encouraging the Church to speak out on issues affecting public policy in a way that uses reason to reveal the objective basis for her teaching.

It would be good to see bioethical issues given a little more priority in teaching from the pulpit. Many people are simply unaware that the Church opposes IVF, for example. Even those who know this may be quite unaware of the riches of Catholic theology on sex and marriage.

It is important to reach young people at school and university before they have committed themselves, in their work or personal lives, to secular ideologies. The Linacre Center hopes to do more in this area, funding permitting -- as well as providing information and support to health professionals under pressure to conform to an anti-life culture.

Q: Why do you think the Church's contribution to ethical debates is ignored so readily in modern Europe?

Watt: Ethical debates in Europe vary from country to country. In Britain the dominant philosophy is one of pragmatism coupled with scientism, and a suspicion that any reference to moral absolutes must be religiously grounded.

A result is that there is very little rational debate in bioethical areas. Debate is seen as merely a way of placating the public, or at best reaching a compromise between differing interests without articulating a coherent moral framework.

This is not the case in some other countries, where there are much stronger religious and cultural supports for moral reasoning of a kind that can enlighten our understanding of human life and its purpose.

All too often, the Church is ignored because she is seen as anti-science -- instead of anti-killing -- and as anti-freedom -- instead of anti-oppression of others and enslavement of oneself.

The media is often irresponsible in its portrayal of Church teaching and generally too shallow in its approach to allow people to see the rationality and beauty of the Church's message.

Moreover, it must be said that many of us, both clergy and laypeople, are far too timid when it comes to expressing Church teaching in these areas, and why it is true and good and leads to happiness.

It would be a good start if we began holding our governments to account -- and judging ourselves by the same yardstick by which we assess them. We have a wonderful message to convey, and should do so with confidence and enthusiasm.

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Faith, Reason, Bioethics, Linacre, Watt, Health, Life

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