Editorial: Listening to the Culture


Michael McCabe
Issue 9, April 2003

When people think about bioethical issues they inevitably bring their own human needs and fears into the process. Without a deeper and more distanced knowledge the only way an individual can respond to the complexities of an issue is through their feelings and emotions.


Toi Te Taiao: The Bioethics Council


Sharron Cole
Issue 9, April 2003

The New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference Submission to the Royal Commission (2000) on Genetic Modification analysed the debate around genetic modification. The Bishops recommended there be an ethical framework for decision making and suggested the following as a way forward:

In order to prevent unethical or unwise use of GM, oversight of its use by appropriate bodies, established by regulation, is a moral imperative. We strongly believe that a framework of ethical principles is needed to assist individuals and the community to make informed decisions about the profound issues associated with genetic modification....


Editorial: Engaging with Society

Michael McCabe
Issue 13, August 2004

"Economic, technological, systemic and medical realities are not enemies. Rather it is to them that we bring our ministry of Christian hope."

--Cardinal Joseph Bernardin

On 14 September 1965 the fourth session of the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome. In the three months that followed the Council Fathers finished their work on Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). This landmark document was to change the way in which the Church related to the world. It is as relevant forty years later as it was when it was first made public.


Editorial: Beyond Slogans

Anne Dickinson, Michael McCabe, John Kleinsman
Issue 15, April 2005

Slogans and bumper stickers are a popular feature of modern life. They offer us messages which are memorable for their precision and conciseness. That is why we love them.

We live in a world of ever-increasing complexity which may explain, in part, why there is a tendency to think we can grasp bioethical principles and ethical solutions in simple one-liners such as the right to choose and the right to life. For all their power and attractiveness and kernel of truth slogans can trap us into thinking that we can come to an adequate understanding of an issue via one perspective alone.


Guest Editorial: Morality and Reality

Anne Dickinson
Issue 16, August 2005

In 1984 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave an address entitled "Bishops, Theologians and Morality" to the Annual Bishops Workshop run by the National Catholic Bioethics Centre in the United States.


Christian Moral Argument and Natural Law "Faith and Reason" or "Faith vs. Reason"

 John Kleinsman
Issue 16, August 2005

In America, and now in New Zealand, an increasing number of strong and powerful "religious" voices are emerging in the political arena to debate the moral issues of our time. A number of these Christian voices employ an approach to morality that appeals strongly and at times exclusively to the authority of God in Scripture.


Guest Editorial: Decisions, decisions...


Anne Dickinson

On an Intrepid Journey programme on television recently a group of Turkish carpet makers gave a mesmerizing demonstration of their craft. With incredible speed they pulled each tuft into the carpet, changing colour without hesitating as they created an intricate pattern.

The carpet makers provided a visual analogy with life. We make many small decisions every day, often without a lot of thought. These decisions are like tufts in the carpet, collectively creating a pattern in our lives. We would be hugely burdened if we were to pay too much attention to them, so we create routines to simplify our daily decision-making processes. Routine saves us from expending unnecessary energy on making minor decisions.


Personhood and Human Dignity

 Michael McCabe
Issue 17, November 2005

"During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct."

--Peter Singer, 2005

In the September/October 2005 edition of the magazine, Foreign Policy Professor Peter Singer from Princeton University wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled The Sanctity of Life: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. In it he argues that, because of significant scientific and technological developments, the belief that life is sacred from conception to death has become, in 2005, untenable. To support his argument Singer cites two examples one at the beginning of life, the other at the end of life.

Earlier this year scientists from South Korea successfully replaced the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of a human cell. Such a development appears to confirm that any and every human cell contains the genetic information required to create a new and independent human being. The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell, Singer argues, undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. For Singer while the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness does not begin so early. Similarly, he argues that personhood can end long before an individual dies.

When patients have suffered such irreversible brain trauma from which they will not recover, then, Singer argues, a decision to remove a feeding tube will be less controversial, because it will be a decision to end the life of a human body, but not of a person. For Singer a patient in this condition has already ceased to be a person and only his or her body remains.

While Singer is right that the development of sophisticated technology will increase our ability to make sound judgments about the limits of curative treatment, the leap in judgment that patients who have lost even a minimum of or considerable self-awareness, are no longer persons is disturbing to say the least. While we argue that the unborn, infants and the cognitively impaired have an innate dignity and a profound moral connection to the community, it is clear from the above argument that not everyone agrees.

The implications of Singer's argument are disturbing, not least because such views are not uncommon in secular bioethics.

For example, in his book The Foundations of Bioethics, H. Tristram Engelhardt outlinea the philosophical basis for such an understanding of personhood in general secular morality and, by extension, in so-called secular bioethics. He lists four fundamental elements of personhood: the ability to be self-conscious; rational; have a minimal moral sense and be free. To the degree that a human being is conscious, able to make autonomous choices, and perform actions which benefit society, his or her life has value and the status of personhood. When these qualities are lacking, so is their personhood. Engelhardt states:

not all humans are persons. Not all humans are self-conscious, rational, and able to conceive of the possibility of blaming and praising. Fetuses, infants, dhe profoundly mentally retarded, and the hopelessly comatose provide examples of human nonpersons. They are members of the human species but do not in and of themselves have standing in the secular moral community. Such entities cannot blame or praise or be worthy of blame or praise; they cannot make promises, contracts, or agree to an understanding of beneficence. They are not prime participants in the secular moral endeavor. Only persons have that status. (Engelhardt, 1996, pp.138-139)

Engelhardt argues that such definitions highlight and reflect the tension between general secular morality and traditional Judeo-Christian morality and the bioethics that it, in turn, supports. Inevitably different philosophical starding points lead to a painful gulf between general secular and content-full morality. (1996, p.140)

The logical outcome of the current trends in secular bioethics regarding personhood is a society divided into persons and non-persons. Non-persons would include those who are cognitively disabled in some way, through genetics, accident, or disease. The requirement to exhibit certain cognitive capacities means that some bioethicists do not see newborns as being persons.

The human rights of those declared to be non-persons would be severely curtailed. Some bioethicists have already speculated as to whether they could be used as non-voluntary sources of organs.

From a Catholic perspective the intense philosophical debates about personhood occurring in secular bioethics give cause for considerable concern. Human dignity is the source of rights in Catholic thinking, not a slippery concept of personhood which can be defined and redefined so that some people are designated as non-persons. It is hard to escape the conclusion that in some cases this is being done for utilitarian purposes.

There is reason to be very afraid if this philosophy should make further inroads into public policy in New Zealand, as it is already doing in other parts of the world.


H. Tristram Engelhardt. (1996). The foundations of bioethics. (2 nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Singer, P. (September/October 2005). The sanctity of life: here today, gone tomorrow. Foreign Policy.

Smith, W.J. (2000, April 3). Is Bioethics Ethical? The Weekly Standard.


Rev Michael McCabe, PhD
The Nathaniel Centre