Wrong-Headed Ethics and Mayhem

December 10, 2013 09:00 AM

Last year, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article entitled “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” Central to the paper’s thesis is the position that “the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus, that is, neither can be considered a ‘person’ in a morally relevant sense.” The paper further poses the preposterous argument that such a fetus or newborn is merely a “potential person.”

A firestorm of criticism followed the publication of this paper, with most of it coming from bloggers and other sources related to alternative media. It provoked a response from one of the paper’s co-authors, research associate and ethicist at Oxford University, Francesca Minerva, that “the Internet allows dissemination of academic ideas to the general public in ways that can sometimes pose a threat to academic freedom. Since academic freedom is a fundamental element of academia and since it benefits society at large, it is important to safeguard it. Among measures that can be taken in order to achieve this goal, the publication of anonymous research seems to be a good option.”

Minerva has a vested interest in defending her position favoring after-birth abortion. She does this as someone recognized as an ethicist. 

Minerva’s position in favor of protecting academic freedom by becoming anonymous is foolish. Such proposals would be summarily dismissed by anyone understanding the havoc that could ensue if all research came out without attribution. Having said that, I personally think that there is a deeper problem here than what immediately meets the eye.

First, we must understand the meaning of the word ethics. What does ethics mean? It is defined in secular terms as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.” To put it in terms relating to today’s practices, there was a time when it would never have been ethical to intentionally abort a child at any stage is his life prior to birth, let alone after. 

It would not have been ethical to dehydrate a patient being cared for at home—as purportedly happened more than 1,000 times over the last 10 years in Great Britain.

It would never have been ethical to make it possible for statutory rapists to purchase birth control for their victims.

It would never have been ethical for a government to trample on the rights of others by mandating evil actions under the guise of healthcare for women. 

But in the same way that President Clinton said, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” today we can say it depends on what the meaning of ethics is. 

We see that ethics today are not always grounded in sound, moral reason and common sense. In fact, as one expert defines it, today we actually have two sets of medical ethics—and the worst of it is that the wrong-headed set is prevailing. On the one side we have secular bioethics. On the other we have the moral law.

The problem with secular bioethics is, of course, that the natural law is tossed out the window in favor of what one or two so-called experts believe to be the best idea at any given time for deciding what is acceptable and what is not. This is where professionals like Dr. Minerva found their calling.

But on the other side of the aisle we find the professionals, including physicians, educators, lawmakers, and common ordinary folks like you and me who understand that making rational decisions or providing intelligent solutions to complex questions requires a grounding in the moral law.

There is a great divide between the two. The better of the two, though, is defined quite adequately in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:  

The moral law is the work of divine wisdom. Its biblical meaning can be defined as fatherly instruction, God’s pedagogy. It prescribes for man the ways, the rules of conduct that lead to the promised beatitude; it proscribes the ways of evil which turn him away from God and his love. It is at once firm in its precepts and, in its promises, worthy of love.

Until such time as the moral law becomes the universal rule of ethics even in secular society, the tragedies and distortions of fact as defined above will continue to guide people like Professor Minerva to choose justifying murder and mayhem instead of what is right and good.

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