Sydney Auxiliary Views the Bioethical Landscape

Interview With Bishop Anthony Fisher

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 1, 2004 ( A bioethical expert says the push for stem-cell research might be in part a sign of a "nagging guilt about banks of frozen embryos."

Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of the Sydney Archdiocese offered that and other views in an interview with ZENIT, on the occasion of the Pontifical Academy for Life's general assembly held Feb. 19-22.

Bishop Fisher, a corresponding member of the pontifical academy, is a founding director and professor of bioethics and moral theology of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia.

Q: What have been the main achievements of the Pontifical Academy for Life's during its 10-year existence?

Bishop Fisher: The academy has brought together a very distinguished group of scientists, health professionals, philosophers and theologians to discuss important issues and inform its own publications. Some of those publications -- for example, Reflections on Cloning -- became major teaching documents of the Church.

Q: Legal limits to a whole range of bioethical matters -- such as cloning, stem-cell research, euthanasia -- continue to fall. Are you optimistic or pessimistic in regard to the possibility of achieving some kind of ethical control over these matters? Do you still believe in "holy" lawmakers?

Bishop Fisher: The situation in this respect is far from consistent. In some places the laws are improving -- for example, the U.S. bans on military abortions and, most recently, on partial-birth abortions.

In other places they are holding firm against very strong pressures to weaken their protection of life -- for example, with respect to euthanasia in most countries.

In other places the laws are getting worse -- for example, the legalization of embryo destruction for research, over-the-counter abortifacients and/or euthanasia.

I have no doubt that the constant proclamation of the Gospel of life by the present Pope and the activities of bodies such as the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Council for the Family are having an effect.

But if the better laws are to be preserved and the worse laws improved, we will need holy lawmakers in the sense of well-informed, courageous, determined, prudent and effective ones -- ones who inform their consciences well, pray, judge and act.

Q: How much of a factor is economics in the stem-cell debate?

Bishop Fisher: I think economics is both decisive and surprisingly indecisive in this debate. Let me explain.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that behind the willingness of many scientists and their backers -- universities, pharmaceutical companies, foundations, governments -- a crude pragmatism rules. Get results -- especially popular therapies -- and you will get reputation and profits.

Of course, this is wedded to a genuine belief, on the part of some of these people, that people will be helped. But altruistic in motivation or more self-serving or both, what these promoters of embryonic stem-cell research have in common is a pragmatic willingness to satisfy some human beings to achieve their research goals.

In the process they abandon the ethic of "primum non nocere" [first, do no harm] and set research science on a very dangerous new course. And many governments, terrified that rival economies will get some advantage, have allowed practices that they know are ethically dangerous or at least dubious. Meanwhile efforts even to achieve a universal ban on cloning are stymied.

On the other hand, the smart money would seem to be on adult stem-cell research, and yet there are scientists -- and their commercial, academic and government backers -- who are putting all their energy into embryonic stem-cell research. On the face of it this is plainly irrational.

The results from adult cells are so much more promising and much more immediately rewarding in terms of therapies and financial returns. So what is going on here?

I think that factors such as ideology, a fascination with tinkering with early human life, a desire for kudos -- articles in Science, Nobel Prizes, etc. -- a nagging guilt about banks of frozen embryos ... are weighing more heavily in some of these decisions than even the old-fashioned profit motive.

Q: In what sense does "gay marriage," according to you, represent a product of family dissolution and a threat to family life?

Bishop Fisher: I have no doubt that many of those who support "gay marriage" or seek it for themselves are very well meaning.

Indeed, whether they realize it or not, their desire to ape genuine marriage with some sort of socially recognized commitment with equivalent status and privileges is testimony to the importance of real marriage.

But I do not think most supporters of these proposals understand how aping a special institution like marriage, pretending all sorts of other relationships are the same thing, removing all the ways in which real marriage is honored and privileged above all other friendships, can actually undermine marriage.

Marriage and the marriage-based family, though remarkably resilient, are under tremendous pressure today and many people are suffering the consequences.

The last thing we need at the moment are new projects of social engineering which further dilute community understanding of the nature and meaning of marriage and the kinds of special support they deserve.

We need to recover a sense of the natural anthropology and sociology of marriage and of the philosophy and theology of marriage, rather than devaluing its currency by calling all sorts of other relationships marriages.

We also need the clearsightedness and courage to say that not all relationships -- even all-loving and committed relationships -- are marriages and that not all people are marriageable. That doesn't have to be said or meant offensively. Not all distinctions are unjust discrimination. There are other ways of supporting people to live healthy, affectionate, chaste relationships outside marriage.

Q: Many of the Church's arguments on bioethical issues are based on a theological and philosophical foundation no longer accepted by modern society. How can the Church convince an increasingly non-Christian world of the validity of its arguments?

Bishop Fisher: If I may be bold: To the extent that our theological and philosophical foundations are true ones, we must seek to convert people to sharing them.

We should not resign ourselves to the fact that we and they have different starting points and "ne'er the twain shall meet."

We must work to ensure they do meet, by correcting any false presuppositions on our own part and convincing other people to adopt true premises on their part.

Furthermore, I think there is still rather more common ground than we often appreciate. Whether it is an enduring shared natural law, or an underappreciated Judeo-Christian cultural inheritance, we still have many starting points in common with many people in modern society and we need to identify and build on these.

A third thing I would say is that we should be aware that the clash of cultures is not just between "the Church" and "the world" on these matters: It often cuts through people affiliated to the Church as much as through others.

We may often have allies outside the Church on some of these foundational issues while having rival conceptions within the Church.

Q: Australia, from a bioethical point of view, could be judged a wonderful "laboratory," since in it one can see how a debate develops concerning the bioethical issues in a country with no solid Christian roots. What is your opinion about that?

Bishop Fisher: Undoubtedly some scientists and their backers get an easier run in Australia, with less obstruction from ethics and cultural taboo, than they do in some more deeply Christian cultures.

It is a pity that there is so little real challenge to the pragmatism and driving ideologies and interests in Australian biotechnology today.

Were there such challenge -- instead of laissez-faire and encouragement to unethical practice even from supposedly conservative authorities -- I think the Australian laboratory would be less smug and lazy, and be more creative in achieving as good or better results within ethical boundaries.

But at the moment there is little incentive to try the ethical course. Other countries should avoid repeating the bad Australian example in this respect.