Bioethikos: Bringing Life to Bioethics

Archive for June, 2009


Cleaning House

Friday, June 26th, 2009 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

The President’s Council on Bioethics has been disbanded. The White House has told the members last week that their services are no longer required.

Appointed in November, 2001 by the Bush Administration, the Council has provided valuable input on some of the most difficult ethical issues in our modern culture. New technologies, both at the beginning and end of life, have challenged our understandings of what it means to be human, and what are the limits of medical science.

The Council was first chaired by Leon Kass of the University of Chicago, followed by Edmund Pelligrino of Georgetown University in 2005. Daniel McConchie (VP for Govt. Affairs with AUL) recently said: “This was the most balanced bioethics council in history, with two leaders . . . who went out of their way to ensure the council was reflective of all the major perspectives on the issues.”

The Obama Administration claims that the President’s Council was “a philosophically leaning advisory group” that tended to focus on extended discussion rather than consensus. Others were even more critical, calling it “more like a public debating society” than an advisory agency.

I have found the President’s Council Web site to be an excellent source of balanced articles on a wide range of subjects (the site is being archived, for which I am thankful). The Council’s outgoing Chair has said this:

To advance human good and avoid harm, biotechnology must be used within ethical constraints. It is the task of bioethics to help society develop those constraints and bioethics, therefore, must be of concern to all of us. (Dr. Edmond Pelligrino)

Granted, each presidential administration has the right to set its own priorities. President Obama has said that he will soon name a new commission that will focus more on “practical policy options.” I suppose that means that this body will be less focused on theory and more on tangible steps. Hmmm.

It has sometimes been said, not without justification, that university and hospital ethics committees are in place to rubber-stamp (and defend to the public) decisions that have already been made, rather than give true, independent ethical guidance. Could this also be said of the new Council under the Obama White House?

Perhaps the former “public debating society” will be replaced by a society where there is no debate at all. Stay tuned.

NY Times Article

Who is to Blame?

Thursday, June 11th, 2009 by Dr. Dennis Sullivan

Ellen Goodman is an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe. Her nationally-syndicated column is usually thoughtful, well-written and balanced. As a liberal, she often critiques social conservative positions. I usually disagree with her, but she always gives me something to think about.

That is why I am troubled by her June 5th piece, “The Myth of the Lone Gunman.” Her commentary on the recent shooting of late-term abortionist Dr. George Tiller is mean-spirited, vitriolic, and unfair. Virtually all the pro-life groups in this country have disavowed and repudiated the use of violence to accomplish their aims. Most pro-choice advocates understand this, and have not attempted to use this terrible incident to discredit anti-abortion activism.

Not so with Ms. Goodman. In a subtle way, she casts about widely to find a wider circle of blame. Here are a few excerpts:

It is believed that the shooter acted alone. Surely, that’s true. No one else was standing beside suspect Scott Roeder when it is believed he murdered Dr. George Tiller in the sanctuary of his church.

But Michael Griffin also acted alone when he killed David Gunn in 1993. Paul Hill acted alone when he killed John Britton in 1994. John Salvi acted alone and so did Eric Rudolph and James Kopp. This suspect is hardly lonely in this murderous cast of lone actors . . .

The pro-life community reacted with shock. No doubt. But where was the shock at the fringe groups they forgot to disavow? . . . Were they also shocked by the everyday mainstream rhetoric that casually refers to abortion as murder? Did they worry about the movement strategy designed deliberately to target providers, the weak link of abortion rights, driving clinics out of 87 percent of our counties?

Pro-life leaders denounced the murder . . . [And] as a First Amendment absolutist, I don’t believe that words kill. But this week, I can’t help wondering whether rhetoric can justify a crime in the mind of a fanatic. Can’t words provide the sort of perverse moral platform that jihadists stand on and the alternate universe in which a “lone nut” can find a home?. . .

I don’t blame everyone who checks a pro-life box on the pollster’s chart. I know that ambivalence is the emotion often cast onto the sidelines of this debate. But it is well past time for the antiabortion movement to denounce those who are in the profession of inflaming passions: Those who call Obama the “most pro-abortion president ever.” Those who ratchet up the rhetoric on a Supreme Court nominee. Those who cull doctors from their honored profession by labeling them “abortionists” . . .

You see, this suspect was not such a lone gunman. And no, I am afraid, this was not an isolated incident.

Now, let’s be clear on a few things. The sudden loss of human life is always a terrible tragedy, whether that of a physician shot down by an unbalanced gunman, or that of an unborn child who dies as a result of abortion. Ms. Goodman is obviously more concerned about the former than the latter; that is her right.

I agree that our passions sometimes get carried away, and our rhetoric is sometimes “over-the-top.” That is surely true on both sides of the debate. Ms. Goodman specifically repudiates the use of inflammatory language, e.g., labeling those who perform abortion as “murderers.” She’s got a point.

But what would you have the pro-life movement do, Ms. Goodman? Should they tone down their rhetoric so much that they can no longer call abortion evil? Surely it is not extreme to say that abortion is “morally equivalent to murder,” if one believes that human personhood begins at conception.

The moral indignation of the pro-life movement is based on a passionate defense of the most vulnerable among us, those who cannot defend themselves. Trying to get pro-lifers to tone down their rhetoric will be difficult. Their emotions are understandable in the face of a society that wants to treat human life as a disposable commodity.

I sincerely regret that a few extremists have chosen to take matters into their own hands, rather than respecting the rule of law. Their actions diminish all of us. But Ms. Goodman, you should not blame us for our moral outrage against the evil of abortion.