Bioethics in Transition - 2014 Conference Review

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Transitions can be uncertain and, at times, intimidating. The end result is not always clear, and yet, during those times, wisdom often dictates staying the course, not straying too far from the path that will get you to the desired destination. Bioethics has gone through its own transitions, from addressing basic ethical questions of life and medical care, to pondering the ethics of technologies that once were the things of the dreams of our most forward thinking scholars and writers. How do we engage this new era of bioethics that is moving at a quicker pace than ever before? That was the question our 21st annual summer conference, Bioethics in Transition, set out to answer.

Each year, we are privileged to host some of the top, thoughtful leaders in academic bioethics who challenge us to continue thinking deeply about the ethical, theological, and philosophical implications of the rapidly changing landscapes in medicine, science, and technology; to look forward while remaining rooted in certain unshakable principles. This year those plenary speakers included: Lisa Anderson-Shaw, DrPH, MA, MSN, University of Illinois Medical Center; Jeffrey P. Bishop, MD, PhD, Saint Louis University; Richard M. Doerflinger, MA, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Gilbert C. Meilaender, PhD, Valparaiso University; and Henk A. M. J. ten Have, MD, PhD, Duquesne University.

They highlighted several of these transitions, from brain death and end-of-life care; to rural healthcare and professional development in the medical field; from shifts in domestic policy concerns to the emergence of a more global bioethics. (Dr. Sleasman lays out many of these specific transitions in bioethics in his article “Bioethics in Transition” in the Summer 2014 issue of Dignitas). One of the most significant transitions in bioethics, over the more than forty years since its inception, is the lens through which it is viewed: moving from the theological roots that were an integral part of the dialogue, to becoming a predominantly secular enterprise. As Dorothy so famously said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

It is true, as medicine, science, and technology continue to advance, that the contemporary bioethical landscape can become daunting and difficult to navigate. In the midst of all these transitions, Professor Meilaender reminded us that even though some of the specific issues addressed by bioethics have changed, the core moral considerations remain essentially the same. Bioethics should still invite us to think about the character of human life, reflecting on the deepest meaning of our humanity. Meilaender highlighted three areas for such reflection: the unity and integrity of the human person; the relation between the generations; and human suffering and vulnerability; suggesting that these considerations, at times, should cause us to pause and proceed with caution in our endless pursuit of trying to enhance human life.

Quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, Professor Meilaender said, “‘Man’s involvement in finiteness and his transcendence over it is the basic paradox of human existence’ . . . therefore, tempting us by reductionisms of various sorts.” One such temptation that continues to play a significant role in bioethics is the duality of person and body vs. the unity and integrity of the human person; enticing us to view a human being in his or her various parts rather than as a whole, embodied spirit, equal in dignity to all other human beings despite perceived limitations or disabilities. Another temptation is the shifting response to our relationship between the generations. The desire to extend life indefinitely can blur the lines between “kinship and descent,” fueling our desire to not be replaced by the next generation, 5 rather than teaching and nurturing them to take our place in this world. Finally, he reminded us that relief from suffering and vulnerability, when seen through a wider lens, is not the greatest good and our pursuit to end it may “destroy other equally important goods in an authentically human life.”

How then do we respond to the Promethean desire for control to overcome our finite state? Professor Meilaender suggested our response can be similar to that proposed by the President’s Council on Bioethics:

“Yes, perhaps we could have helped you through the research we thought was wrong to do, but we could have done so only by destroying, in the present, the sort of world in which both you, and we, wish to live. The world in which, as best as we can, we respect human life and human individuals, the weak and the strong. To have done more would have meant transgressing boundaries essential to our humanity and although we very much want to leave to our children a world where suffering can be more effectively relieved, that is not all we want to leave. We want to bequeath a world that honors moral limits, a world in which the good of some human lives are not entirely subordinated to the good of others, a world in which we seek to respect, as best we can, the time each human being has and the place each fills.”

Another summer has come and gone, and with it, another successful, thought-provoking conference. The staff at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity is so grateful for those who give of their time, finances, and other resources to ,make this event a priority, whether they are a plenary speaker or simply attending as a participant. It is not lost on us the sacrifices many of you make to be here and we look forward with anticipation each year to “conference time.” It is a time for us, and I know for many of you as well, to see our friends and make new ones.

While it is a huge effort for our small staff of four full-time people, it always refreshes our souls. It refreshes us, because of the encouragement we receive from all of you to press on in the work we do, to be a distinctly Christian voice in bioethics. It refreshes us because we are encouraged to hear the stories of how you are that same voice in your professions, in the places you work and live. It refreshes us, because you stimulate our thinking as well, as we listen to you present or have conversations during the breaks and lunch. It refreshes us, because it is just always good to be with our extended “bioethics family.”

We are already looking forward to being with you again, June 18-20, 2015 for our 22nd annual summer conference, Science, Research, and the Limits of Bioethics, when we will hear from another excellent group of speakers: Nigel M. de S. Cameron, PhD, MBA; Maureen Condic, PhD; Robert P. George, JD, DPhil; Fabrice Jotterand, PhD; C. Jimmy Lin, MD, PhD, MHS; Rosalind W. Picard, ScD; and Jennifer Wiseman, PhD. See you then!