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A tale of two kinds of bioethics education

Matthew Barick/WP
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Catholic schools are basing curriculum on truths of human nature, while a government panel is suggesting something else

A US government commission wants to see a major expansion of education in bioethics, helping everyone from the very young to the very old understand the life issues they will face and build consensus on bioethical decisions.

There are at least two Catholic schools in the US who are already contributing to that goal.

But the schools’ approaches differ in key ways from the proposals made by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Issued in May, “Bioethics for Every Generation: Deliberation and Education in Health, Science and Technology” is the last report the commission appointed by President Obama will complete before its mandate expires in January, when a new president takes office.

The Obama panel has developed educational materials that can be used for a variety of audiences.

“We undertook this report—which focuses on the future of bioethics deliberation and education—because of our nation’s urgent ongoing need to foster civil and robust public discourse and civic involvement, especially in service of health, science, and technology policy that serves the common good,” said Amy Gutmann and James W. Wagner, chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, in a letter to the president accompanying the report. “In ‘Bioethics for Every Generation,’ the Bioethics Commission offers eight recommendations to increase and improve the use of democratic deliberation and ethics education in order to enhance complex decision making in bioethics and health, science, and technology policy at all levels. Because education and deliberation are mutually reinforcing, we offer ideas for innovative ways to incorporate deliberation skills into ethics education, and to enhance deliberative processes by improving ethics education.”

But Dominican Sister Terese Auer, chairwoman of the bioethics department at St. John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries, Va., finds it troubling that the report stipulates the goal of democratic deliberation as “reaching an actionable decision for policy or law, open to future challenge or revision.”

As the report says:

The science or technology in question might advance, the context might change, or our understanding of the values at stake might shift with time. Revisability allows decision makers to respond to these changes and ensures that all aspects of a decision, including norms, values, and theoretical commitments, are open to future challenge and subsequent revision or rejection if they no longer withstand scrutiny.

From the emphasis on “democratic deliberation,” Sister Terese said, “it is evident that the Commission does not ground their ethical reasoning in lasting values.”

“The Commission thinks that the public should be able to determine for themselves policies or laws about their own health and that of others,” said Sister Terese. “This process, the Commission hopes, should dramatically increase ‘the likelihood that health policies will be accepted as legitimate and justifiable,’ even in the midst of our sharply polarized society.”

The example the report provides for ideal democratic deliberation, she noted, is the 2012 debate in Great Britain regarding mitochondrial donation, an IVF technique that involves cells taken from a “third parent.” Authorities in the UK concluded at the end of a 13-month public dialogue process that “general support” existed and that “ethical concerns are outweighed by the arguments in favor of mitochondria replacement,” the report said. Parliament then approved of the controversial procedure.

“The Commission’s goal, from this example, seems not to involve applying ethical principles, but rather to do what is popular according to the majority of persons concerned,” Sister Terese concluded.

More to read: Panel approves genetic engineering for one baby to have three parents

The approach to teaching bioethics at St. John Paul the Great High School is similar to the Commission’s, but different in key ways, Sister Terese explained.

“We base our arguments on the truth regarding our common human nature,” she said. “Our goal then is not to arrive at group consensus; rather, it is to live truthfully, that is, in accord with our nature. We understand that there are objectively right and wrong answers because our human nature is objective.

“Thus, we would never sacrifice ‘ethical concerns’ to arguments for a so-called ‘good’ based merely on majority opinion,” she continued. “There is no room for compromise regarding some truths, for example, the dignity of every human person. Certain human acts are intrinsically evil because they are contrary to the good of the person himself, and the ethical norms regarding them are not revisable; they will never change.”

More to read: High school bioethics program a great success

Dominican Sister Anna Laura Karp, chairwoman of the Ethics and Culture department at Frassati Catholic High School in Spring, Texas, finds that the Commission’s report is “not rooted in an objective truth that this is human nature and if we do things in accord with it things will work out well.”

“They’re asking for students to discuss issues as open-ended questions,” Sister Anna Laura said.

Frassati, a school that opened north of Houston in 2013, teaches students that ethics is a “science that’s rooted on the first principle that we have a nature that’s a given,” Sister Anna Laura explained. “Ethics is a science or study that defines acts we should do in order to achieve our end, which is happiness.”

It’s not clear how extensive bioethics education is in Catholic schools nationwide. A request for information from the National Catholic Education Association was not answered.

John Brehany, a spokesman for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, agreed that people have to be educated in bioethics. “Arguably, Catholics have to do a better job at this than ever because the most basic things upon which we reason ethically, including the natural law, the nature of the human person, are utterly under attack today.”

[Editor’s note: Take the Poll – Should Ethics Be À La Carte]

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