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Vatican conference tackles new technology and medicine

Banner a view of st peters basilica 1 and vatican city flag from the roof of a nearby building on june 5 2015 credit bohumil petrik cna 6 5 15

A view of St. Peter's Basilica and Vatican City flag from the roof of a nearby building on June 5, 2015 (Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

Technology will be at the heart of an upcoming Vatican conference on accompanying human life in the digital era, particularly with regard to the medical field. The conference will emphasize both the benefits and limits of new technology, and what those mean for the Church.

New technology has “an increasingly relevant impact on the various aspects, the various moments of human life,” Msgr. Renzo Pegoraro, chancellor of the Pontifical Acedemy for Life, said Oct. 2. The Pontifical Academy for Life wishes to look at the positive aspects of technology and everything it has achieved “in the field of health, of human life, and the betterment of certain conditions and situations.”

However, while great helpful strides have certainly been made, Pegoraro said it's also important to discuss “the dangers, the risks that are linked with a technology that is increasingly invasive and powerful, which can condition many aspects of human life.” Pegoraro spoke at a news briefing on the academy's upcoming general assembly, which is titled “Accompanying Life: new responsibilities in the technological era,” and will take place Oct. 5-7.

The conference marks the academy's first general assembly since the renewal of their statutes last year, and will draw new academic members from 37 countries around the world. Among the members are four honorary members; 45 ordinary members appointed by the Pope; 87 corresponding members named by Board of Directors; and 13 young researchers, a request of the new statutes. All members will serve for a five-year period.

In his comments to journalists, Pegoraro said the academy wants to start the discussion from a “positive perspective,” and stressed that there is “there is no fear of technology or immediate negative judgement” of its uses. Rather, the goal is to recognize the positive and beneficial contributions of new technologies while also drawing attention to the risks.

The great challenge, he said, is finding an answer to the question: “what is the responsibility? What ethics are at play? What methods are there of managing this power, which has been entrusted to man's responsibility?”

The program of the conference more or less follows the structure of the new charter for healthcare workers the Vatican published in February, and is divided into three main categories: issues surrounding the beginning of life, healthcare in general, and the themes relevant to the phase of the end of life. Topics to be discussed include looming modern questions in the areas of reproduction, parenthood, illness, and death, as well as the consequences of what Pope Francis has often called a “throwaway culture.”

Discussion will also bring in elements of Pope Francis' chapter on technology in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si', raising questions such as: “Is the spread of technology creating more justice and reducing certain inequalities? Or are inequalities growing?” Pegoraro said. “Those who have this technology in hand, are they favoring global growth in various countries, especially in the relationship between the north and south of the world? Or do they run the risk of widening the gap between developed countries and those in the process of developing?”

He stressed the need to more clearly explore where the line should to be drawn between prolonging life and when to accept mortality, incorporating technology to reduce pain and help the person to have a “dignified death.” Technology can help to keep a person comfortable, he said, but “it doesn't defeat death.” So the great challenge, then, is “to find the lines that are respected for every person, especially the most weak, vulnerable and suffering.”

In comments to CNA, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the academy, said there is an urgent need to reflect on life “not as if it were an abstract idea, but in the concrete reality of people of all ages, in the different conditions in which they live, so that human life rediscovers its meaning, its vocation, and also its responsibility in the entire context of the planet.”

So while beginning of life issues such as abortion or end of life issues such as euthanasia are crucial modern talking points, they aren't the full picture, he said, explaining that the academy seeks to address “defending life in all its conditions,” including childhood, adolescence, and old age, as well as when it comes to other topics such as the death penalty.

“We interested in accompaniment at every moment, we are interested in making understood the contradiction of choices of new technologies in front of a humanistic vision,” he said, explaining that the recovery of a “humanistic” dimension is required for all “scientific areas that involve human life.”

Also present at the news briefing was Dr. Bernadette Tobin, Director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics at the Australian Catholic University. In comments to CNA, Tobin said that “new technologies require us to think out (about) medicines, healing, ethics, and thinking out how that can be provided for people in a way that respects their dignity as human beings.”

New technologies have helped ensure that people suffering from various diseases have cures, “and can now live out what you might call a natural lifespan rather succumbing to some of these terrible diseases.” However, the reverse side “is that people are often kept alive in circumstances in which they simply would not want that to happen, and they simply feel that they don't have a duty to accept what kind of healthcare is being offered to them,” Tobin said.

Because of this, “we need to think carefully about that, and help doctors who are looking after people at the end of their lives understand ethically and clinically what their responsibilities are because there is both over-treatement, and under-treatment, and we've really got to avoid both.”

New technologies, she said, have “augmented medicine's ability” to pursue noble objectives such as pain relief, various cures and organ transplantation. “This is a wonderful new set of technologies,” Tobin said, while cautioning there is always a challenge in ensuring “that what's now possible is done in ways which respect both the internal ethic of medicine, and respect the dignity of the human being.”  

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