By Moira McQueen, Novalis, 105 pages, $9.95.
Pope John Paul II accomplished many things as pontiff, but one of the most important for the long-term is clarity, something at which his successor has also been extraordinarily good.
Clarity from the Church has become ever more important. Brisk scientific advances, particularly in the medical field, have constantly added to the moral disarray of the post-sixties 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 St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. She is also the Executive Director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Centre.
McQueen's simplicity parallels that of 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.
Yet McQueen brings the debates back to earth by reminding us that 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, echoing 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 preempts 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 hucksters offering up alternatives to Catholic teaching have to play around with semantics in order to safeguard their legal “rights.” They are using 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 also 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 make several extra embryos that then get destroyed or used in research. Just as problematic, what happens to frozen embryos if the couple divorces, no longer wants children, or are 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.”
McQueen builds her consistent and compelling argument on the theology underlying ethics. The first of the book's four parts offers a theological groundwork, and includes easy-to-understand definitions of important theological practices such as hermeneutics and teleology, and ways of thinking about ethics, such as relativism, consequentialism, and deontology.
As well, McQueen's Catholic notions of the importance of the individual's personhood and the integration of body and soul ground her argument.