On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for Theory


One of America’s leading bioethics journals features a strong argument for assisted suicide for the mentally ill in its latest issue. Jacob M. Appel, a short story writer and lawyer who writes on bioethics, contends in the Hastings Center Report that “the principles favouring legal assisted suicide lead logically to the extension of these rights to some mentally ill patients”. In Switzerland this is already the case. In November last year the high tribunal in Lausanne set down guidelines for people with “incurable, permanent, severe psychological disorders” who want to terminate their own lives.Mr Appel argues that that victims of depression or psychosis can make a rational choice about whether to end their lives, though given “the finality of a life-terminating decision”, the bar for assessing competence should be set higher. “If the values championed by assisted suicide advocates are maximimisation of autonomy and minimisation of suffering — even when they conflict with the extension of life — then it follows that chronically depressed, competent individuals would be ideal candidates for the procedure,” he asserts.

However, this could place psychiatrists in a particularly difficult situation, he warns. At the moment, contemporary psychiatry is committed to suicide prevention. Hence a psychiatrist would have to choose between acceding to a patient’s legitimate request and the unreasonable standards of his colleagues. To get around this, Appel suggests the use of “full-time thanatologists [a specialist in death] specially trained for the act”. ~Hastings Center Report, May-June   



America’s culture wars appear to be invading the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, Nature. The lead editorial in the June 14 issue is a combative rebuttal of an op-ed in the New York Times by US Senator Sam Brownback. In it he contended that evolution provided welcome insights into nature. But, he said, it had to be rejected if it undermined the notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God, as it says in the book of Genesis.

Poppycock, says Nature. “The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is not atheistic theology. It is unassailable fact.” Discoveries in the new sciences of human behaviour also show that the origin of the human mind is to be found by studying biological and cultural evolution.  

Not content to let the matter rest there, Nature commissioned a freelance science journalist, Dan Jones, to survey evidence that many moral judgements stem from visceral reactions of disgust. According to Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, disgust is a sensation that has an adaptive value in the face of natural selection; it enables distinctions between an in-group and an out-group, us and them. Disgust fosters greater cohesion within groups. “Where core disgust is the guardian of the body, moral disgust acts as the guardian of the social body — that’s when disgust shows its ugliest side,” says a psychologist of disgust, Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

And who shows more irrational disgust? Here’s where Nature lobs its culture war grenades into the trenches of the enemy. According to psychologists from Yale and Cornell Universities, interviewed by Jones, it is “conservatives”, notably opponents of abortion, gay rights, cloning and stem-cell research. Questionnnaires apparently show that self- identified liberals are motivated largely by the empathetic and rational virtues of concern for harming others and for fairness. Conservatives, on the other hand, while they, too, had these motivations, are also influenced by more primitive-sounding emotions of group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual purity.

Disgust is more or less synonymous with “repugnance” and Jones gleefully deploys this recent research to pull the rug from under America’s best-known “conservative” bioethicist, Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Kass coined the phrase “the wisdom of repugnance” and used it to question the case for cloning. “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder,” he wrote.

Primitive stuff, it seems. According to Jorge Moll, a Brazilian cognitive neuroscientist, disgust, and presumably repugnance, reside in the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex. What we need to do is cultivate the liberal virtues of tolerance and empathy to counteract “the toxic effects of disgust”. ~ New York Times, May 31; Nature, June 14   


The UK’s leading medical research group says that creating hybrid embryos from empty animal eggs and human genetic material is “vital” for the fight against disease. As usual, media reports stressed that the resulting cell would be 99.9% human and only 0.1% animal. “There are no substantive ethical or moral reasons not to proceed with research on human embryos containing animal material under the [current] framework of regulatory control,” says Professor Martin Bobrow, a spokesman for the Academy of Medical Sciences.The Academy’s support for the Blair government’s overhaul of fertility legislation was essentially old news. However, astonishingly, Professor Bobrow also advocated creating true hybrids by mixing human and animal gametes. (These would be destroyed within 14 days, of course, as is currently the practice.) This scenario, when mooted by opponents of therapeutic cloning, has consistently been ridiculed as an absurd fantasy by science journalists and researchers. However, it is clearly on the Academy’s agenda.

“We found no current scientific reasons to generate ‘true’ hybrid embryos by mixing human and animal gametes,” the report said. “However, given the speed of this field of research, the working group could not rule out the emergence of scientifically valid reasons in the future.” This may be the first time that this controversial possibility has been flagged publicly by a leading scientist.

The report prepares the ground for these developments by dismissing ethical objections against human-animal hybrids. For one thing, it is not contrary to human dignity, because human dignity this does not exist. The Academy seems to have been paging through Peter Singer’s ruminations on “speciesism”: “On a more fundamental level, we judge it unlikely that ‘human dignity’… derives simply from species membership. If the concept of ‘human dignity’ has content, it is because there are factors of form, function or behaviour that confer such dignity or command respect.

“Either hybrid creatures would also possess these factors or they would not. If they do possess these factors, they would also have a specific type of dignity analogous or identical to human dignity that other creatures lack; if not, they would not. Either way, the distinction between creatures that possess dignity and those that do not remains as it is now,” says the report.

Dipping their toes into the “wisdom of repugance” debate, the Academy dismisses the notion of “unnaturalness” as a reason for banning hybrids. “Not only is it very difficult to specify what unnatural’ means, but it is not clear why ‘unnaturalness’ should be bad; IVF is an ‘unnatural’ process, but it has few contemporary opponents. Vaccination and antibiotic therapy, and nearly all of modern medicine, represent a scientifically informed intervention in nature.” ~ BBC, Jun 17   



What if homosexuality is biological and not volitional, determined by genes and not by choices? Is this good news or bad news? Most frequently, gay rights supporters cite this as evidence why their lifestyle should be accepted. But biological determinism is a two- edged sword, as the Rev Albert Mohler Jr, one of America’s leading evangelicals, showed this month.

Mohler has created a firestorm of controversy with an article suggesting that there may be “some level of biological causation”. But his response was not acceptance, but medical treatment for the unborn foetus. “If a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin,” he wrote in his blog. Not surprisingly, gay rights groups accused Mohler of homophobia, although he urged Christians to be understanding and charitable towards homosexuals.

Mohler’s intervention in the debate was sparked by recent research which appears to show that rams with same-sex attraction can be “cured” chemically. This led to speculation that a pregnant woman whose child might be genetically disposed to homosexuality could wear a hormone patch to change his sexual orientation. ~ AP, Mar 15; www.albertmohler.com