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Bioethics Conference Addresses Current Issues

October 29, 2009 - 9:19 PDT


STEUBENVILLE, OH (October 29, 2009) - With presentations ranging from discussions about current legislative battles over end-of-life decisions to the legal status of the unborn, Franciscan University of Steubenville's fall bioethics conference offered attendees a sweeping overview of current issues in bioethics.

Dr. Patrick Lee, the director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University, described The Value of Human Life Conference as a response to Pope John Paul II's call for "a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life...A special task falls to Catholic intellectuals, who are called to be present and active in the leading centers where culture is formed."

"All of us here--professors, students, and others--are intellectuals, and we have an obligation to defend the weakest of our brethren," said Lee.

The speakers and paper presenters took up the challenge with vigor. Among many other conference speakers, Dr. Andrew Trew, a professor of bioethics at St. Mary's Seminary and John Carroll University in Cleveland, discussed "Love for Life," comparing Catholic bioethics with a secular bioethics.

"Catholic bioethics is trying to create an integral view of the human person from conception to natural death," Trew said, "one in which death is not a medical treatment." He criticized the secularist view, arguing, "Evolution will only give us a partial view of the human person." He emphasized that evolution is fine as far as it goes, but biology must be balanced with an understanding of the unique, intended, and beloved nature of every human person.

In a similar vein, plenary speaker Dr. Francis Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, examined "Human Dignity and Its Discontents." Beckwith explained that in the internal debates among bioethicists, there exists a category of thinkers who repudiate the idea of human dignity because of two main philosophical positions: enlightenment liberalism and scientific materialism.

"Enlightenment liberalism refuses to endorse any view of human dignity because that would violate freedom," Beckwith said. "Scientific materialism holds that science is the best way of knowing. Therefore, philosophies of the human person which affirm non-material qualities have no knowledge content."

Such thinkers prefer the standard of personal autonomy, or freedom from outside control, in bioethics, arguing that such a standard came into being in response to such atrocities as the Nazi experiments on unwilling human subjects and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment on unwitting African Americans. Beckwith said, "Autonomy presupposes dignity, but is not identical with it." He asked further, citing Evangelium Vitae, whether an unspeakable crime becomes less a crime when a democratic majority legitimates it.

Speaking of the importance of human dignity at all stages of human life, Dr. Charles Zola, executive director of the Ethics Institute of Northeastern Pennsylvania at Misericordia University, shared some truly horrifying stories of elder abuse while addressing the topic, "The Values and Disvalues in Elderly Life." Zola summed up the modern problem of elder abuse by saying, "The elder care situation is tantamount to the child abuse scandal. We think, 'These things are unthinkable, how can they be true?' And we look away." He argued that modern neglect of the elderly stems from an unbalanced emphasis on independence in modern culture. "We are caught up in webs of dependence," Zola said, merely by being alive and human.

Plenary presentation speaker Dr. John Keown, who holds the Rose F. Kennedy Chair of Christian Ethics at Georgetown University, discussed "Physician Assisted Suicide: Why Not?" He offered an overview of the arguments for and against assisted suicide. Against the argument from compassion, Keown said, "Death doesn't actually benefit the patient. They aren't around to experience a benefit."

Keown closed with an examination of assisted suicide laws in Oregon and the Netherlands. He scrutinized the promises made by assisted suicide advocates and how the actual implementation of legalization has played out. Citing a study done by the Netherlands to ascertain how doctors were living up to the law, Keown said that soon after implementation, the survey showed about 2,500 unreported voluntary physician assisted suicides and around 1,000 involuntary physician assisted suicides. Of the involuntary suicides, a significant portion of them involved competent patients who simply weren't asked for their consent. "The figures have since gone down," Keown acknowledged, "but these cases shouldn't happen."

Richard Rolwing, head of the National Institute on the Study of the Declaration of Independence, spoke on "Abortion and the Declaration of Independence," exploring the nature of the human person implicit in the Declaration. The document assumes the existence of a Creator who is the source of the inalienable rights of all human persons. "Whatever else the unborn have," said Rolwing, "they must have certain properties [rights] not granted by their parents or society." He charged that the modern mind is, in certain ways, philosophically unable to recognize the foundations or force of the position of the Founders. "Unless you have a soul, you cannot have inalienable or natural rights," said Rolwing. "The phrase 'inalienable rights' implies both God and an immortal soul."

Dr. Patrick Lee followed up on this discussion when he presented "The Basis for Rights" at one of the plenary sessions. He began by saying, "It seems morally permissible to use some living creatures [non-human] for our own purposes--to consume them, to experiment on them, to use them without their consent or without their being able to give or withhold their consent, but that it is not morally permissible to treat [human] beings this way. The question is, by what criterion do we draw the line?"

Lee offered the standard of the nature of the creature in question, arguing that creatures with a rational nature--that is, persons--are rights-bearing creatures by being the sort of thing they are. "The thing you are matters, rather than some accidental characteristics you acquire at some point in your life cycle."

The next conference sponsored by Franciscan University's Institute of Bioethics is scheduled for March 25-27, 2010, and will address the topic "Suffering and Death."


Franciscan University of Steubenville
OH, 43952 US
Tom Sofio - Associate Director of Public Relations, 740 284-5893


bioethics, euthanasia, assisted suicide, abortion, evangelium vitae, patrick lee, human dignity


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