(University of Notre Dame Press, 2020, paperback, 236 pages, $30)
Reviewed by John Grondelski
In his enlightening book Disputes in Bioethics: Abortion, Euthanasia, and Other Controversies, Christopher Kaczor, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, quotes Richard John Neuhaus’s definition of bioethicists as those who “guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on the way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as unexceptional.”
Lest one think Neuhaus unfair in his assessment, consider the recent news of scientists growing monkey embryos using human cells, which a Case Western Reserve University bioethicist admitted might be “quite shocking” to the masses but having “more background than the average person about this area of science . . . I can understand why they wanted to do it”.
The dominant philosophical schools informing the burgeoning field of secular bioethics are utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) and proceduralism (“Did I check all the boxes, especially on ‘autonomy?’”). While bioethicists assume some philosophical anthropology—some way of understanding the human person—most don’t admit it, a curious omission for a discipline that emerged—in the late Sixties—ostensibly to promote human flourishing.
Professor Kaczor is forthright: “Eschewing the dominant perspectives . . . [I address] recent and influential perspectives in contemporary bioethics from a methodology that maintains the inherent dignity of all human beings who . . . merit protection in their basic human goods.” This can also be described as the sanctity-of-life ethic.
Kaczor is no stranger to the field, having authored at least four other books directly dealing with pro-life bioethics, including Abortion Rights: For and Against (with Kate Greasley, Cambridge University Press), A Defense of Dignity (University of Notre Dame Press), The Ethics of Abortion (Routledge), and The Edge of Life (Springer).
What is most refreshing about this book is its unabashed sanctity-of-life perspective, a rare and underrepresented voice in contemporary bioethics. Kaczor is a scholar who wears his erudition lightly in this book: Without watering down his analysis, he writes in a way accessible to educated readers with a general interest in this field.
The book is arranged around 17 bioethical issues framed as questions. For example: “What Are Reproductive Rights?”; “Is Roe v. Wade Unquestionably Correct?”; “Why Should the Baby Live?”; “Should We Make Children with Three (Or More) Parents?”; “Is ‘Death with Dignity’ a Dangerous Euphemism?”; “Should Euthanasia Be Permitted for Children?”; “Does Assisted Suicide Harm Those Who Do Not Choose to Die?”; “Is Conscientious Objection to Abortion Like Conscientious Objection to Antibiotics?”; “Do Medical Conscientious Objectors Differ from Military Conscientious Objectors?”; and “Should Conscientiously Objecting Institutions Cover Elective Abortions in Their Insurance Plans?”
Kaczor develops most of his arguments in response to positions advanced by other thinkers in the field. In “Is There a Right to the Death of the Fetus?”, for instance, he probes the implications of artificial womb technology one day making it possible to terminate a pregnancy without fetal death. While the essay is a response to an article in theoretical philosophy by Joona Räsänen—who defends a woman’s right to a dead fetus—Kaczor makes it clear that this isn’t just a theoretical question. The legality of third-trimester abortions, which can result in the birth of a live infant, coupled with political opposition to robust and explicit born-alive protections, shows us how it is playing out today.
Kaczor maintains intellectual rigor while tackling these bioethical issues in memorable ways that cut to the chase. Take his criticism of the lack of internal logic behind arbitrarily fixed limits on euthanasia:
If there is a “right to die,” then why should only those at the very end of life be able to exercise it? If the suffering caused by cancer justifies self-killing, why not the suffering by losing the girl of your dreams? After all, given the choice between having cancer or losing Juliet, we all know what Romeo would choose (p. 149).
Or this critique of body-self dualism, exemplified in the contemporary willingness to identify “personhood” with consciousness and mental states:
Suppose an individual human being has two independent sets of beliefs, desires, goals, and memories. The one human being is Dr. Jekyll and also Mr. Hyde. Now suppose a psychiatrist cures the multiple personality disorder, eliminating the Mr. Hyde set of memories, beliefs, and desires. Has the psychiatrist done an act of compassionate healing for which she deserves praise? Or should the psychiatrist be blamed for “destroying a person” and be subject to criminal prosecution for murder? (P. 127).
As the reader makes his way through Kaczor’s exploration of individual questions to tease out broader trends now considered (at least by some) “unexceptional,” he may be tempted to ask, “How did we reach this point?” By engaging these views from a consistent sanctity-of-life perspective, Kaczor opens our eyes to just how far contemporary bioethics (to borrow Robert Bork’s phrase) has slouched towards Gomorrah.
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his own.