When church leaders in the United States face new bioethical questions - such as those surrounding abortion, euthanasia, or gender identity - they often turn to the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center.
The center has been working with Catholic institutions such as hospitals since 1972, and publishes The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.
It was announced this month that Dr. Joseph Meaney, the director of international outreach and expansion for Human Life International, will be taking over as the president of the NCBC.
Speaking to Crux, he said bioethics is “an almost exponentially growing field.”
“First, the unprecedented rapid pace of technological discoveries, particularly in genetics and biology. Second, multiple contemporary ethical systems that do not view the dignity of the human person in ways that harmonize with the Gospels or Church teaching,” Meaney explained.
He said the greatest challenges in the coming years will be “from gender ideology issues such as sex-change surgeries and drugs and also end of life issues, particularly assisted suicide and euthanasia.”
Meaney received his Ph.D. in Bioethics from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome. His dissertation topic was “Conscience and Health Care: A Bioethical Analysis.”
He told Crux there is “a very broad and concerted attack on conscience rights in many Western countries,” including over abortion and assisted suicide. Meaney said this doesn’t just affect doctors, but also nurses, midwives, and pharmacists.
What follows are excerpts of his conversation with Crux.
Crux: First of all, can you tell us what the National Catholic Bioethics Center does?
Meaney: The National Catholic Bioethics Center or NCBC, was founded in 1972 and since then has played a tremendous role in briefing the U.S. bishops on bioethics topics, helping individuals and institutions with ethical dilemmas, offering educational courses and resources as well as publications, both academic and practical, on medical ethics. The NCBC is rather unique in that it has six ethicists with doctorates on staff full-time who write, research and teach but also respond to calls and emails from persons who want to know what the Catholic moral tradition teaches in very difficult situations.
The NCBC is first and foremost at the service of the Church and our bishops, who have the grave responsibility to oversee the Catholic institutions in their dioceses. Catholic hospitals, in particular, face challenges in carrying out their ministry of healing while remaining faithful to the moral teachings of the Church. The NCBC has helped numerous hospitals and bishops to resolve thorny ethical issues and problems. We have the honor of sending staff to teach at a number of U.S. seminaries and to be called to address assemblies of priests or even parishes.
Our academic journal, The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, is an award-winning publication that is read around the world. The NCBC has long had a working relationship with Vatican institutions, particularly the Pontifical Academy for Life. Our online National Certification Program in Bioethics has now had over 2,000 graduates who wanted or needed a university-level certification course in Catholic Bioethics.
What are the major challenges you see in the next five years in bioethics?
Two factors make bioethics an almost exponentially growing field:
First, the unprecedented rapid pace of technological discoveries, particularly in genetics and biology.
Second, multiple contemporary ethical systems that do not view the dignity of the human person in ways that harmonize with the Gospels or Church teaching.
It is really hard to predict what will be technically possible in five years. Could it be an option to transplant a human brain? It would not be ethically licit to do so, but these kinds of moral prohibitions carry little weight with some trans-humanists who dream of a kind of earthly immortality based on the merging of human minds and machines.
Realistically, I see the greatest challenges in the next five years coming from gender ideology issues such as sex-change surgeries and drugs and also end of life issues, particularly assisted suicide and euthanasia.
In what way does the NCBC work with the country’s bishops on issues surrounding bioethics?
Every two years the NCBC, in partnership with the Knights of Columbus, puts together a two-day workshop in Dallas, Texas for the U.S. bishops. Actually, some Canadian, Caribbean and Latin American bishops also attend. The idea is to provide our shepherds with information and ideas regarding important emerging issues in bioethics. It is an exceptionally fruitful moment of dialogue and reflection in their busy schedules.
Members of the NCBC also serve on several committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. We are called to contribute our knowledge and insights regarding documents and initiatives of the USCCB.
The NCBC works with many individual bishops who consult with us. Frequently they seek assistance in evaluating the faithfulness to Church teaching of the Catholic hospitals in their dioceses and implementing changes if necessary.
We have ten U.S. cardinals, archbishops or bishops on our board of directors who help the NCBC to maintain its strong link to the hierarchy.
You have worked and lived extensively outside the United States. What is happening in other countries that Americans should have an eye on?
Yes, I have lived 9 years in Italy and four in France. I have also been to 81 different countries on pro-life and pro-family trips in the last 25 years.
If I had to choose one nation, outside the U.S., to watch closely for bioethical challenges, it would be Japan. The Japanese fascination with technology, particularly robotics, and capacity for scientific advances make it a cutting-edge country for some dangerous trends. I heard one Japanese robotics-expert say that he cannot see a real difference between a human being and a fully autonomous robot!
One general observation that may come as a surprise to some is that the vast majority of countries in the world have very conservative cultures. The U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand are very influential but also very different from the majority of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Oceania. Abortion is severely restricted in most countries, and very few nations have redefined marriage around the world.
Your area of expertise is conscience rights in medicine. This is especially important when it comes to abortion - which is when most Catholics hear about it - but what other areas pose a risk for the conscience rights of Catholic doctors?
There is a very broad and concerted attack on conscience rights in many Western countries. The abortion lobby really wants to kick pro-life persons out of the healing professions. Catholic doctors and hospitals are a living reproach to abortionists because they refuse to participate in the killing of preborn children. With the rise of euthanasia and assisted suicide, this is another area where conscientious objection is needed and can be countercultural.
I find that nurses, midwives and especially pharmacists are frequently the targets of regulations and rulings that discriminate against the right to conscientious objection. Nurses are sometimes subjected to tremendous pressure to follow doctors’ orders that would kill a patient through an overdose of morphine. Midwives are increasingly pushed to participate in abortions or contraception. Pharmacists can have a terrible time finding employment where they are not required to dispense the birth control pill or drugs for assisted suicide or other illicit products.
You worked for Human Life International for 20 years. What from that experience will you bring to your new position?
Human Life International (HLI) is a wonderful global institution. It reaches all continents and spreads the Gospel of Life around the world. I will be bringing the same zeal for promoting the dignity of the human person to the NCBC. I hope to put my international experience to good use at the NCBC. There is a real need for centers like the NCBC in many countries. Hopefully, we will be able to establish partnerships in many places. The NCBC is already part of a global network of bioethics centers founded by the late Cardinal Sgreccia, the International Federation of Bioethics Centers with a Personalist Inspiration. As the number of ethical issues around the world increase from year to year, the Church should support more centers to form leaders and help resolve ethical problems the faithful must face.