Clear answers in the moral chaos

By  Brian Welter, Catholic Register Special
  • May 21, 2008

{mosimage}Bioethics Matters: A Guide for Concerned Catholics, by Moira McQueen, (Novalis, 105 pages, softcover, $9.95).

Pope John Paul II accomplished many things as pontiff, but one of the most important for the long term is clarity — something Benedict XVI has also worked at to good effect.

Clarity from the church has become ever more important. Brisk scientific advances, particularly in medicine, have constantly added to the moral disarray of the post-1960s, everything-goes culture. Given current levels of moral uncertainty in our society — sometimes even among Catholic teachers and other lay members — McQueen’s simple introduction to bioethics, which is the ethics surrounding medical and biological issues, helps to straighten things out.

McQueen, a lawyer and theologian by trade, lectures in Christian ethics and sexuality and marriage at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. She is also the executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute.

McQueen’s directness parallels Pope John Paul II in that the moral thing to do is often quite simple, though not necessarily easy.

Unlike most books on ethics, this one doesn’t bog down in case studies. Nor does Bioethics Matters exhaustively examine every angle on issues. One of the strategies of those undermining a moral view of the universe is to complicate and befuddle every issue with ceaseless what-if scenarios. This tends to make traditional Christians look like inflexible, out-of-touch meanies and themselves look compassionate and open-minded.

McQueen brings the debates back to Earth by reminding us we can find clear solutions even in fast-paced medical sectors full of moral chaos. Her discussion of in vitro fertilization exemplifies this. She keeps her argument as simple and understandable as possible, reflecting throughout the book the view of the magisterium.

“The church teaches that this use of technology separates the unitive and procreative aspects of intercourse between husband and wife, and therefore is not allowed. With in vitro fertilization, new life depends on the impersonal acts of scientists and laboratory workers. The church points out that it is completely against human dignity to bring a human child into the world this way, instead of through a personal, marital act of its own mother and father.”

Echoing Pope John Paul II, Bioethics Matters builds its argument around the dignity of the human. Central to this pontiff’s ethics was “personhood.” McQueen uses this to great effect for her discussion of many of the issues.

Again, she takes the simplest, least confrontational route to end confusions about personhood. She pre-empts a never-ending debate with people who want to muddle the argument: “Personhood cannot be proved or disproved by philosophical argument.”

She reminds the reader that whereas Catholic teaching clearly states that personhood begins at conception, “Other views of personhood have to invent or decide upon other starting points, mainly to accommodate the intent to override any legal status the new life would otherwise acquire by virtue of existence.”

In other words, moral spinmeisters offering up alternatives to Catholic teaching have to play around with semantics in order to safeguard their legal rights. They are obscuring the very existence of innocent lives to do so.

McQueen puts the debate in stark, easy-to-understand terms. “A societal denial about personhood enables us to allow abortion as a choice.”

McQueen brings up another reason, besides deliberate moral confusion, for society’s ethical rot: “Developments in reproductive technology radically affect people’s attitude towards new human life. We are in a position to create life but also to reject it at the embryonic stage if it does not fit our expectations and demands. No longer are we co-operating with God.”

She goes on to discuss the dreadful reality that governments, medical science, medical practitioners and potential parents regard the embryo as property rather than as a human person. She cites the many problems that result from the fact that it takes many attempts for an embryo to survive in the womb. This means that clinics induce  extra embryos which are then destroyed or used in research. Just as problematic: What happens to frozen embryos if the couple divorces, no longer wants children or is killed in an accident?

Even more important than these issues, Bioethics Matters unearths the big spiritual and ethical failure that got us to this point of moral confusion in the first place: “The use of phrases such as no longer required and spare to describe unwanted embryos shows how easy it is to downplay the fact of the humanity of every embryo, made in God’s image.”

(Vancouver-based Brian Welter is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of South Africa.)

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