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Amidst Disputes in Bioethics, Hope for Human Flourishing

A new book by Christopher Kaczor is an accessible resource for those who want to understand current debates in the field of medical ethics.

Is favoring human beings over non-rational animals a form of prejudice? If we develop artificial wombs, might one claim a right to the death of one’s child, and not just the termination of the pregnancy? Is the separation of conjoined twins ethically permissible?

Christopher Kaczor’s Disputes in Bioethics addresses these questions—and myriad others from recent scholarly debates—in a collection of short essays that even those who have little background in the field can understand. As he explains in a prefatory note, his approach rejects the common ethical frameworks of consequentialism (to make ethical judgments according to outcomes) and principlism (to reduce ethics to the application of principles or rules). Instead, he strives to consider bioethical dilemmas in light of the natural law.

Admittedly, the book can feel disjointed at times, as it rapidly segues from one dispute to another—some of them foundational (“What Is Dignity?”) and some decidedly more niche (“Is Conscientious Objection to Abortion Like Conscientious Objection to Antibiotics?”). It focuses primarily on ethical arguments that would interest secular audiences, although some—such as whether abortion can be defended to protect infants from sin—enter into theology. The arguments to which Kaczor responds illustrate how fractured an understanding of the human person many in academia and the medical profession have. Chapter titles such as “Is It Better Never to Have Been Born?” emphasize the bleak questions with which bioethics tends to be concerned. Yet Kaczor does not fail to give his readers occasion for hope.

His chapter on whether children contribute to the flourishing of their parents offers an understanding of dignity, interdependence, and virtue that breathes life into the other debates in the book. Kaczor acknowledges—as has Tim O’Malley—that many people avoid marriage and parenthood out of fear. Quoting C. S. Lewis’s iconic “to love is to be vulnerable” passage from The Four Loves, he points out that one cannot avoid suffering in human life—a fact that is skirted by abortionists, invasive fertility treatments, and the “death with dignity” movement. In committing to marriage and to procreation despite the fear of suffering—which can seem overwhelming—one experiences genuine love, encounters increased opportunities to grow in virtue, and prepares for one’s eternal destiny. Here, Kaczor echoes sentiments that have been expressed recently by Rebekah Curtis and others:

In separating those who are entering heaven from those who are going to hell, Jesus says to those entering heaven, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me” (Matt. 25:35–36). . . . Only after I had children did I understand this teaching in a new way. After all, every good mother and every good father do these things on a daily basis.

Kaczor’s embrace of the necessity of love in the face of trials is what ultimately animates his detailed logical arguments throughout the book. Legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide denies that love to the elderly and the terminally ill. Institutional support of killing children in the womb denies that love to women, families, the unborn, and society. Love recognizes the dignity of the poor and marginalized, and it provides them with better options rather than deny the reality of suffering.

Disputes in Bioethics offers an accessible opportunity for those who want to understand current debates in the field of medical ethics—and its lengthy bibliography provides a wealth of resources for further exploration.

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