Monday, September 22, 2014

"In This Issue" -- NCBC Director of Publications reflects on the most recent edition of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly

As we witness the end of the Summer and look ahead to new beginnings and the resumption of activities that often mark the start of Fall, we at the National Catholic Bioethics Center have just the thing to foster critical thinking, to get your brain up-and-running, and to help bridge the transition between the seasons: The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. This award-winning publication, one of the NCBC's hallmarks, demonstrates the NCBC's dedication to scholarly excellence in our commentaries on medical ethics. The most recent Summer edition of the Quarterly is detailed below in the commentary of the NCBC Director of Publications, Dr. Edward Furton. Dr. Furton takes time to reflect on each edition of the Quarterly and describes the contents of the current issue for our readers. We are pleased to present Dr. Furton's post, In This Issue, to you here.

If you like what you've read and want more, start receiving your very own QuarterlySubscribe to the NCBQ: Visit the Quarterly's page, HERE, and click the Subscribe button.



When we discuss bioethics, we face the danger of separating sound moral doctrine from the mercy and love of God. Talking about deeply personal subjects, such as contraception, physician-assisted suicide, and same-sex marriage, can provoke very strong and sometimes negative reactions. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, OP, in “Preaching Catholic Bioethics with Joy and Mercy,” addresses the importance of compassion when speaking about bioethics from the pulpit. Taking desire, joy, and mercy as the keynotes for his presentation, Austriaco lays out various personal stories and examples that effectively convey the core of the Gospel message.

The topics of in vitro fertilization and embryo adoption continue to generate reflection. Elizabeth Rex, in “IVF, Embryo Transfer, and Embryo Adoption,” situates these issues within the broader context of the Church’s concern for embryonic human life, especially as set forth in Donum vitae, the instruction on bioethics from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Rex responds to two recent publica-tions in this journal, one written in defense of “therapeutic IVF” and the other in opposition to embryo adoption. She argues against therapeutic IVF on the grounds that IVF cannot be justified for any reason. She next contends that embryo transfer is a life-saving measure endorsed by a careful reading of the Church’s teaching on care for human beings at the beginning of life.

The NCBQ has published many papers, pro and con, on the possible postfertilization effects of levonorgestrel, the active ingredient in Plan B, the morning-after pill. José Ulises Mena, in “A Prefertilization Mechanism of Action of Plan B,” argues that the drug may have a postovulatory effect that is not abortifacient. The author agrees that clinical studies show that inhibiting ovulation cannot account for the full extent of pregnancy reduction following use of this drug, but it is possible that levonorgestrel acts prior to fertilization by slowing transport of the ovum. This mechanism of action, if true, would avoid moral difficulty. Mena reviews the literature and previous discussions in these pages in light of this possibility.

“The Decline of Natural Law Reasoning,” by Joseph Tham, LC, MD, looks at how the Catholic moral tradition has been increasingly isolated from the wider secular understanding of ethics. The Church’s opposition to contraception, grounded in natural law reasoning and set forth especially in Humanae vitae, was a turning point in this decline, though complaints against the manualist and casuist tradition arose earlier. The idea of an unchanging human nature, with appeals to a universal ethic that applies to all, no longer speaks to contemporary culture. There is a pressing need for new ways of engaging modern understandings of evolutionary science, human anthropology, and the general philosophy of nature in witness to the universal truths of ethics.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s critiques of liberal political philosophy have made him one of the more formidable philosophical thinkers of our time. In “Liberalism, Health Care, and Disorder,” Robert Kinney relies on MacIntyre’s analysis as he explores the sweeping powers accumulated by the federal government under the new health care law. He shows that the expansive definitions of such terms as “health” and “disease” are in part attributable to philosophical conceptions disconnected from objective nature and joined instead to the satisfaction of human desire. These terms, cut loose from any natural foundation, have become powerful instruments in redefining the health care enterprise. Kinney shows that if the practice of medicine is to remain moral, the terms that define health care must remain connected to the natural order.

In “Causal Constraints on Intention,” Steven Jensen takes recent comments by Christopher Tollefsen in defense of the new natural law theory as an opportunity to examine application of the theory to cases of vital conflict. Tollefsen and others advocate a “first-person account” of moral action. What matters in this account are the proposals that we present to our minds as we venture into the world to make moral decisions. The problem with such an account, Jensen suggests, is that it enables the agent to easily redescribe his intentions in ways that avoid reference to the causal connections that exist in the world. These are often deemphasized or even completely neglected in the first-person account of morality. In fact, causality places certain con¬straints on what we can reasonably propose to ourselves as our true intentions. After reviewing the case of self-defense, as well as the action theory of G. E. M. Anscombe, Jensen concludes that the causal connections in the world necessarily intrude on our actions, even when we attempt to reformulate our intentions in ways that ignore or deemphasize them.

Becket Gremmels, Peter Cataldo, Elliott Louis Bedford, and Cornelia Graves, MD, in “The Metaphysical Status of the Placenta,” argue that the placenta, properly considered, does not belong either to the fetus or the mother, but is a quasi-substance that exists in a symbiosis with mother and child. Most Catholic bioethicists hold that the placenta belongs to the child, because it comprises mainly cells derived from the fetus. The authors note that the existing literature does not argue for this position but merely assumes it to be true. They discuss the anatomy and physiology of the pla¬centa and conclude that it has a unique metaphysical standing. They draw no moral conclusions from this assertion, but if their thesis is true, it could have wide-ranging implications. The authors recognize the controversial nature of their paper and, in fidelity to the Church, lay it before the magisterium for consideration and judgment.

Edward J. Furton, MA, PhD
Editor-in-Chief, NCBQ

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