Bioethicist: During the Pandemic, Ethical Concerns Remain Paramount
Joseph Meaney, National Catholic Bioethics Center president, discusses what drew him to the field of bioethics and the work of the NCBC.
In the midst of the pandemic, the National Catholic Bioethics Center continues its work providing consultation and education on bioethical issues in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Joseph Meaney has been at the helm of the NCBC since June 2019, when he succeeded John Haas as the center’s president.
Before joining the NCBC, Meaney worked with Human Life International for 21 years, and he has a Ph.D. in bioethics from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. He spoke recently with EWTN News producer Kate Scanlon about what drew him to the field of bioethics, the work of the NCBC and concerns presented by the current health crisis.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your family.
I am Franco-Texan. I was born and raised in Corpus Christi — it’s a very unique place, named for the Body of Christ, so it has a very strong Eucharistic devotion. Mom being French, we kind of grew up biculturally, with dual citizenship, U.S. and French. My mother was a medical doctor, my father was a Ph.D. in philosophy, so we had some interesting discussions around the table growing up. Dad would talk about Thomas Aquinas, and mom would talk about medical stuff, and she used her medical degree to do a lot of pro-life work, so I kind of grew up in the pro-life movement.
After I finished my master’s, I ended up doing a lot of pro-life work at the United Nations, and while I was attending a United Nations conference, I met my wife, Marie — which is a good joke, because we’re “Mary and Joseph.” We went through a long period of infertility, unfortunately, and basically nine years went by before we were able to have our little daughter, Therese. And we were very blessed to have our daughter. But that did spur my interest in bioethics quite a bit.
That leads me into my next question: What drew you to the field of bioethics?
There were a whole series of things, but at one of the U.N. conferences, I encountered Human Life International. And I was very attracted to that, being international myself and growing up in the pro-life movement; and HLI was hiring, so I ended up working with them. And then all these different bioethical cases would come up — you know, the hard cases. We’d talk not just about abortion, but sterilization and contraception, defending marriage and the family, and all these different scientific problems. Because of our infertility, we were studying all the techniques, and, of course, a bunch of them are quite unethical that have been developed over the years. So, anyway, all those different topics really brought me into bioethics.
Tell me more about the National Catholic Bioethics Center and the help they offer to Catholics facing difficult medical or other bioethical issues.
It’s a very unique institution. Most bioethics centers are attached to universities, and they’re basically like think tanks. The NCBC was established for very practical purposes: We work with Catholic hospitals, with their ethics committees when they have thorny cases, to help them with their policies, to help them train their staff, to basically serve as a resource for Catholic health care in America. We also work closely with the USCCB on some of their committees.
And then the other thing that we’ve done is work very closely with the Catholic faithful. Over the years, the tools of medicine have become so powerful for life support, for different therapies, et cetera, you couldn’t possibly do everything that medicine is capable of doing. And so people are having to make decisions about what kind of medical procedures to do, and some of these are technical decisions, but some are moral decisions, and that requires discernment. And so we’ve offered this consultation service to help individuals or their family members who have questions, they just don’t know exactly which way to go. And we have experts who are trained in ethical and medical issues, who can help you discern.
One of the most interesting things about bioethics is you’re dealing with human beings, human beings who are all different, but we have clear principles and clear science. Bioethics is involved in all these new discoveries, and they change the equation as to what is possible, and there’s always an ethical component.
What kind of public policy work does the National Catholic Bioethics Center do?
At some point, bioethics becomes bio-law. So there’s a need for experts to advise the lawmakers — you know, what is the latest science, but also an ethical analysis of it. Should we legalize this, should we restrict this, should we be directing scientific research in this direction or that direction? And so, the NCBC gets called upon, both at the state level and federal level, to testify on different issues, and we get asked by different policymakers to give an opinion. We have a lot of relationships with Catholic conferences at the state level for lobbying, et cetera.
And the other thing, too, is the courts in America are definitely involved in setting public policy, even though legislation is not supposed to be the role of the courts; so, because of that, we’ve become very involved in putting in amicus briefs in different cases that go before federal courts.
What do you think are some of the top bioethical issues facing the United States and the world?
Scientific discoveries are growing exponentially; we’re at this almost breakneck speed. It is incredible, the sort of manipulation of the human person that is involved in some of this. From in vitro fertilization to resequencing the genetics of human beings, there’s a massive threat to humanity, literally humanity, from biology gone amok without proper ethics. It’s a situation where the human being is not really being respected, their dignity is not being respected. Especially with this push for modern eugenics — you know, 90-plus % of children diagnosed with Trisomy 21 in the womb are aborted. The country of Iceland has declared victory against Down syndrome, but they haven’t eliminated Down syndrome — they’ve eliminated babies with Down syndrome in the womb.
Then there are laboratories around the world that can mutate a disease and create a superbug. There need to be some really strong safeguards on working with viruses, and we’ve recently seen how dangerous viruses can be. So science run amok, without ethical safeguards, seems, to me, a very strong and emerging threat, if people look at what they can do instead of what they should do.
What unique challenges does the coronavirus pandemic present?
One of the biggest concerns really is: Just because we’re in a crisis situation does not mean we can dispense with ethics. We need more safeguards, more concern about these things. Sure, we can speed up scientific research for a vaccine; sure, we can put into place protocols and other things that will speed processes up, but we can never turn what is wrong into what is right.
The main point that the Church has always made is: The end does not justify the means. Forsaking ethics creates a slippery slope that gets worse and worse. You need to have those clear lines in the sand: We will not cross this. And that is the kind of safeguard that the Church provides.
Kate Scanlon is a producer with EWTN News. She writes from Washington, D.C.