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Monday, December 17, 2012

Meet an NCBC Ethicist!

Today's post is an interview with an Ethicist at The NCBC. It marks the first of what I hope will become our "Meet an Ethicist" serial here on NCBCmedia. I hope you enjoy! Click Read More to see my conversation with Fr. Pau Agulles. 

Last week I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with our Visiting Research Scholar, Father Pau Agulles. It was chilly Wednesday morning, and The NCBC was bustling as usual. Despite the busy day Father Pau was very gracious and took a considerable amount of his time to chat with me about his time here, his passion for his research, and his impressions of America and The National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Me: Good Morning, Father.

Father Pau: Good Morning.

Me: How are you handling the cold of the American Northeast?

FP: Haha, it's okay really. When I'm in Italy, the pastoral side of my mission takes me away from Rome to L'Aquila in the Apennine Mountains. So I suppose I am used to it.

Me: That's good! Now, tell me about Rome, that's where you really began your work, correct? 

FP: Yes, that's true. I was ordained a priest 7 years ago at the Basilica of St. Eugenio, in Rome. I am originally from the beautiful city of Barcelona, at the Eastern coast of Spain, but when I finished my College and Masters studies on Pharmaceutical Chemistry in Barcelona I moved to Rome to study Philosophy and Theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce. After I received my Doctorate in Sacred Theology, the University asked if I would stay as a professor in the Department of Moral Theology.

Me: That must have been exciting.

FP: Very much so. But it means that my life in Rome has been longer than what I expected initially.

Me: How long have you been there?

FP: Twelve years so far!

Me: After a full twelve years in Rome, what brought you to the United States?

FP: Last year I changed my main research field from Fundamental Moral Theology (general ethics) to Bioethics. I knew about the NCBC because, beyond its excellence as a reference Center for Bioethics in the United States, it is very well known in Europe and all over the world. I had attended lectures given by NCBC members at the Pontifical Academy in Rome, and I had thought for a few years now that spending a semester [with the NCBC] would be an excellent opportunity for me to delve into the world of Bioethics. So, I applied to take a sabbatical and spend it as a visiting research scholar here.

Me: How did it all work out?

FP: I got to know [NCBC President] John Haas two or three years ago at one of the general meetings at the Pontifical Academy for Life. One of the other professors at Santa Croce and a friend of mine, Pablo Requena, already knew Dr. Haas and we all decided to have dinner together. Right at that time I was in the process of deciding to change my focused area of research to Bioethics. That dinner with Dr. Haas inspired me and he mentioned that it might be great if I could visit and work with The NCBC sometime. I agreed that would be wonderful. Obviously it took some time to receive time off for a sabbatical and to really lay out a concrete plan for what I would do at the Center. But once I had things worked out, I shot him an e-mail and he said we should go for it. So finally this year it all came together.  

Me: How were things for you when you arrived?

FP: Wonderful! From day one I was integrated into all the normal activities at the Center, collaborating as an ethicist and helping to organize the many different services The NCBC offers. It actually proved to be an excellent plan! The NCBC does great work and the very human atmosphere helps you strive to find new ways of explaining the truth about human dignity to others. The NCBC truly works to embody that respect of human dignity and to spread the understanding of this dignity throughout the world. America is a pioneer country in health care and in biomedical research, and the unavoidable ethical dimensions of these important activities face big challenges here.

Another goal for my trip to the States was improving my English...and, of course, traveling in this great and wonderful country.

Me: And travel you do! You commute here from Washington D.C. every week, right?

FP: Yes, by bus usually. Occasionally on Amtrak. I am stationed part time in Washington D.C. for the duration of my sabbatical.

Me: Why were you sent there initially? What type of work do you do during your time there?

FP: In D.C. there's a residence of Opus Dei (called Tenley Study Center) where I spend the weekends. I was sent there because they had a perfect place for me to stay long term, despite the distance from Philadelphia. There, my normal activity is taking pastoral care of the apostolic works and initiatives of Opus Dei in and around Washington. I also take advantage of my days in D.C. to enjoy a new environment and get some rest from the busy week.

Me: How have you spent your downtime?

FP: I've already visited a good number of Museums and key spots in D.C., and I also like going running and playing soccer with some friends, although I should say that usually I have hard times setting up a pick-up soccer game!

Me: Yeah, that tends to be a tough sell.

FP: Sadly yes. Here people don't like soccer as much as in my own country.

Me: Maybe they're afraid they'll lose to you?

FP: Haha, that may be so. After all, in high-school I was Barcelona champion with my school team, and in college my team placed 2nd in the championship one year!

Me: Now that you've had some time to settle and to really dive into your research, what are some of the chief moral/spiritual/philosophical issues you find to be paramount in your daily work?

FP: An important issue in the First World countries today is the moral relativism we unfortunately find at all levels of life.

On the individual level, a lot of people think that anything is good for you so long as you 'feel it,' and thus absolute moral values (good ones and evil ones), in practice, disappear. This transcends boundaries and enters the political sphere and, accompanied by the juridical positivism, we are today bound to endure formalized relativism. Through this we find that what has to be done and what has to be avoided, after being chosen by only some of the citizens, is demanded for the rest of them, no matter what the rest of the citizens want, and without consideration of man's nature and dignity.

This leads to a kind of turning everything upside down. This is a kind of ethical relativism which, according to its proponents, was supposed to be set for the sake of freedom and tolerance. It is, however, actually assaulting freedom. If you pay attention, in the democratic countries -the land of freedom- you now find that the freedom of living your own religion and the freedom of following your own conscience are not allowed anymore.

Me: But in the name of tolerance!

FP: Exactly! A good example of this big social and political problem in the U.S. is the inhumane coercion the HHS mandate is imposing on Christians and people who believe in Natural Law and the value of human life.

Me: What is your personal take on Bioethics in daily life? What types of issues do you see affecting the daily lives of individuals here and in the world? Why should they care?

FP: The good thing about the object of study of Bioethics is that it involves everybody. Actually one of the services The NCBC offers is a consultation service, by email or by phone, in which we help institutions and individuals to make a certain decision when facing a bioethical dilemma.

Me: Do you find that service is popular?

FP: It is a really well attended service. Many of the consults we receive constantly remind us that bioethics is an everyday issue: "My mother is in persistent vegetative state. Is it ethically licit to withdraw her feeding tube?" --"My gynecologist gave me a prescription, for therapeutic purposes, for a drug that may act as a contraceptive yet I oppose contraception. What would be the moral repercussion of using that?" -- "My sister has an ectopic pregnancy, what is the morally licit answer to what doctors are suggesting she do?" -- "I have a big company with thousands of employees and I am providing them an insurance, but from now on their insurance will have to include contraception, sterilization and early abortions and I don't want to cooperate with that at all. Would it be ethical and morally licit to continue providing the insurance?"

Me: And these are issues that affect all of us?

FP: Each person's situation and the ethical conflicts of our neighbors are of incredible importance for the rest of our society. The decisions made for one person or in one case can easily provide a precedent or a pattern that others may have to confront sometime later in their own lives.

Me: You're right, of course. America is going through exactly this same unprecedented moral and ethical socio-political conflict right now regarding those themes of healthcare, government and religious institutions’ involvement in the bodily health of individuals, etc. In relation to your given understanding of the role of Bioethics in the lives of individuals, do you believe America is unique in its manner of confronting and conversing about these issues?

FP: I think America is not unique in the sense that a lot of countries have to deal with the same bioethical problems America faces nowadays. The uniqueness of America lies in the fact that it usually is the first country to openly confront and cope with these issues and many others.
Americans have to be aware that they will probably be followed by a lot of countries, who often look at the U.S. to see how they address these problems. Moreover, many other nations see developments made in America and look forward to following the same path. So it is very important that Americans behave, teach, and vote responsibly while taking very much into account the ethical factors in their social behavior. There is a good deal at stake, in terms of the consequences of a socio-political choice.

 This social awareness will be possible only if Americans acknowledge that the relativistic argument saying "I wouldn't do it but I'll vote for the most pro-choice option because I don't want to impose my criteria on others" is more than just a tricky argument: It is an enormous slippery slope.

Me: What do you think Americans have to lose here?

FP: Well, if you vote yes to that [based on the argument given above] the first step will of course be allowances made for those who initially truly wanted to do it. Same-sex marriage, for instance, or free abortion. This won't necessarily bother you...but right after this, what will come when they claim, and then demand, and then impose, this 'right' upon everyone. More than this, what happens when these same interested parties (those who were not open to life or to a life lived morally and ethically) begin appropriating other supposed "rights" to themselves? The ability to adopt children suddenly becomes the right to adopt children, for instance. What kind of childhood and education will those children -your own children's classmates- receive? Finally, when the misappropriation of rights moves even further to become a requirement that everyone receive, even by force, these misconceived rights, then how is this free?

What will you do if you are eventually compelled by the law to perform or receive that abortion you first voted for?

Me: If you could change the conversation regarding how Catholic Healthcare is presented in America, how would you change it? Or what would you add.

FP: After  the government, Catholic Health Care institutions are the largest provider of healthcare in the United States. These Catholic institutions are driven by their fundamental  mission to safeguard and proclaim human dignity and the holiness of all human life. So they should always be places where the human person really matters and where personhood will always be taken care of in all its spiritual and physical dimensions. Sometimes these institutions should be more committed to Catholic values in the concrete institutional choices they make. The Catholic moral values are actually their reason for being. They should never be despised. Unfortunately we find nominally Catholic institutions in accord, or even cooperating fully, with entities that don't share Catholic and Natural moral values. These institutions carry out actions, such as abortions and sterilizations, that are antithetical to Catholic values. They are forgetting those words of our Lord, which ring just as true today: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mk 12:17)

Me: What is an issue you deal with that is especially important to you? Why is it so? What do you want or hope to do about it and what should people know about it?

FP: My current area of research has to do with two important issues in our society, namely, questions concerning abortion/contraception and assistance-substitution in human reproduction. They are not easy problems. Regarding the first topic, it is important to try to shed light on a big confusion that extends  through all levels in our society today: The differences between abortion and contraception.
It is wrongly thought that eliminating the fruit of the fertilization before implantation is mere contraception, and that it doesn't mean killing a human being. To pharmaceutical labs, however, it makes no difference whether you are preventing ovulation or letting it [and fertilization] take place and taking action afterwards, thereby killing the product of fertilization, the embryo, before it gets implanted. These very different acts and outcomes fall under a blanket term called contraception. Many of the chemicals in the new so-called contraceptives mix the strict contraceptive effect with the new one which kills the embryo, as in the “emergency contraception,” the IUD, or some of the progestin-only contraceptives. It is thus very important to thoroughly study this (from the point of view of both the biomedical and ethical sciences) and try to clarify these dangerously ambiguous terms. It is most important to me to at least get all people to know that, no matter what you call it, killing an embryo is always killing a human being.

Me: Finally, what do you think people should know about The National Catholic Bioethics Center? How has it changed you since you have been here?

FP: There are so many wonderful things about The NCBC. Perhaps the most remarkable one is its openness to truth. I am enjoying the multidisciplinary approach The NCBC takes when addressing problems and I like that the staff  here have a sincere openness to continued learning.

Most importantly, I believe that The NCBC works hard to propagate the fact that Christian values are rational values. Every member of The NCBC strives to ascertain where the rational truths in their arguments lie. They work hard to explain these truths with a solid line of reason. They want to spread the Truth to all people, not just Christians. I also enjoy the atmosphere of kindness and charity that permeates the Center, the relationships with my coworkers, and the serious professionalism with which the daily work is faced.

Me: Father Pau, this has been an incredibly enlightening chat with you. I hope we can look forward to hearing more from you here on NCBCmedia in the future. Thank you so much for your time and for introducing yourself, your work, and the work of the NCBC to so many people. Also, have a safe trip back to D.C. this weekend!

FP: Thank you!

* * *

Father Pau is an Associate Professor of Bioethics at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce (Holy Cross) in Rome. He is a Visiting Research Scholar and cooperating Ethicist at The National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Father Pau assists The National Catholic Bioethics Center in its mission to apply the moral teachings of the Catholic Church to ethical issues arising in health care and the life sciences. Father Pau expresses his opinions on the appropriate application of Catholic moral teachings to ethical issues. Neither Father Pau's opinions nor the Center's moral analyses should be construed as an attempt to offer or render a legal or medical opinion or to engage in the practice of law or medicine. Father Pau's insights are neither a direct indication of, nor a comprehensive presentation of the views of The National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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