Young Catholics recently joined Church leaders from around the globe for World Youth Day in Madrid, so it’s an ideal opportunity to pause and contemplate the ethical values now driving the West’s use of science and medicine and to ask how the rapidly shifting moral boundaries will shape the world that awaits the next generation.
Legal abortion darkened the conscience of baby boomers and paved the way for the growing acceptance of technologies that lead doctors and patients to approach baby-making as a consumer service — and, one day, perhaps a moral requirement.
In much of the West, it is said that science and faith must inevitably collide. We have only to signal our preference — faith or science, belief or skepticism — and stick with it. This stance suggests that science requires a hermetically sealed environment suitable for objective investigation and carefully protected from the taint of subjective ethical deliberations.
The notion that moral principles subvert the integrity of scientific inquiry and policies ignores the vital role of conscience, thus reducing the vocation of the scientist to technical facilitator. Advocates of unlimited scientific progress offer a vision of ethical reflection concerned with process (how to do it), not substance (what is being done).
The dangers posed by this mindset were on display in a recent New York Times Magazine article about the growing acceptance of so-called “selective reduction” of twins to “singletons” — a procedure employed by some doctors who help couples achieve pregnancy through reproductive technology.
The article charted the shifting position of a prominent physician who initially refused to end the life of a healthy twin embryo, but changed his mind after parents continued to request the procedure.
“Ethics,” he said, “evolve with technology.”
The article noted that consumers have “come to believe that the improvements are not only our due but also our responsibility.”
Indeed, when a doctor’s resistance to illicit demands gives way to acceptance of market forces, the shift alters the moral landscape for everyone involved. Whether or not patients choose to play God, the path not chosen can weigh heavily: Should they have burdened their family with a disabled child? Are too many children a luxury?
Guilt lingers when parents end the life of their unborn child. But one expert quoted in the article suggested that judgmental “outsiders” were responsible for making parents feel bad: “That’s also where the patients’ guilt comes from,” she stated.
The Church teaches something quite different: The moral law is written on our hearts. Rejecting it, we turn against ourselves.
It’s time for scientists and physicians who have allowed the marketplace to dictate their ethical decisions to consider the future we are bequeathing to the next generation — including the siblings of the unborn children killed under the morally neutral regime of “selective reduction.” And as young Catholics just gathered in Madrid, let us hope and pray that the survivors of these brutal procedures, like the survivors of the abortion holocaust, become the conscience for their generation, challenging all illicit practices that attack the human dignity of all involved — mother, doctor, embryo, scientist.