Monday February 15, 2010

Bioethics Must be Guided by Natural Law Principles of Human Dignity: Pope

By Hilary White

ROME, February 15, 2010 ( – A bioethics not founded in the “foundational principle of human dignity” is unable to respect human rights, the pope said on Saturday. In his address to the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV), a meeting of philosophers and scholars held annually in Rome, the pope said that with the rapid advance of technology, it is more imperative than ever that bioethics be guided by the Natural Law that is “inscribed by God the Creator in the heart of man.”

“When respect for the dignity of the person is invoked it is fundamental that it be complete, total and with no strings attached,” he said. Without the “universal principles” of the fundamental right of all human beings to have their inherent dignity regarded – a “common denominator for the whole of humanity” – the result will be a “relativistic drift at the legislative level.”

Every law in every society, said the pope, “is called to recognize this right as inviolable and every single person must respect and promote it.”

“Without the foundational principle of human dignity it would be difficult to find a source for the rights of the person and impossible to arrive at an ethical judgment in the face of the conquests of science that intervene directly in human life.”

The pope said that bioethics, “like any other discipline, needs guidelines capable of guaranteeing a coherent reading of the ethical questions which inevitably emerge when faced with possible conflicts of interpretation.” To uphold human dignity, these guidelines must be those provided by the Natural Law.

The term “bioethics” is often used interchangeably with the older term “medical ethics,” but some ethicists warn that modern bioethics is in fact a new “normative” system of ethics that, based on the principles of utilitarianism, can never be compatible with Natural Law principles. In the last few decades, utilitarian-based, capital “B” Bioethics, also called Principlism, has largely supplanted traditional, Natural Law-based medical ethics in hospitals and ethics boards in most western countries.

Under traditional medical ethics, the guiding principle is “do no harm.” But contemporary bioethics abandons this in favor of its three principles of “justice, beneficence and autonomy” in an effort to find the utilitarian goal of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Under these principles, preserving the life of the human patient is not considered paramount.

The pope said that the issues surrounding bioethics, including the new reproductive technologies, are questions of “anthropology,” that is, questions regarding the true nature and purpose of human life. Under the Natural Law, the source of all human rights is the “inalienable right” of the “recognition of human dignity,” that “finds its basis in that law not written by human hand but inscribed by God the Creator in the heart of man.”

The plenary meeting of the PAV was called to reflect on themes pertaining to the relationship between bioethics, technological developments and the natural moral law.

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Future of Pontifical Academy for Life at Stake as Members Meet in Closed Door Session