April 12, 2024

John Paul II, bioethicist, RIP

Admirers of the late John Paul II crowd into St Peter's Square in Rome to pay their last respects  (AFP/Andreas Solaro)

Though it was overshadowed by other involvements, Pope John Paul II, who died last week, may have been the most influential bioethicist of the 20th century. Figures like Peter Singer, Julian Savulescu or Arthur Caplan are well-known, but none of them spoke to an attentive audience of more than a billion people.

A trained academic philosopher and ethicist, Karol Wojtyla wrote extensively on the meaning of sexuality before becoming Pope. Afterwards bioethics became a focus of his teaching, as he fostered a culture of life” — now a buzzword amongst American politicians, including President Bush. In 1994 he established the Pontifical Academy for Life, an international advisory body of scientists and ethicists to keep the Vatican abreast of the latest developments in bioethical issues.

In several of his official pronouncements, such as “The Gospel of Life”, he argued forcefully that legalised abortion and euthanasia would eventually erode a commitment to democratic values. Convinced that bioethics ought to speak a universal language, he tried to steer Christians away from faith-based fulminations to a human rights critique which had much in common with declarations made by the United Nations.

By and large, the media and other bioethicists took a dim view of the Pope’s contributions, dismissing them as irrelevant, fundamentalist and theocratic, especially his conservative views on the pill and condoms for AIDS victims. However, his enormous popularity, even amongst young people, and his impressive ability to empathise with the ill and the aged, suggest that his ideas, however counter-cultural, still resonated with many people, Christian and non-Christian. His staunch defence of traditional morality helped to stiffen resistance to “threats” to human life, especially in the US.

In the last years of his life John Paul used his battle with Parkinson’s disease to make his views on the dignity of suffering more persuasive. His final days became a bioethical drama about end-of-life care broadcast on TV sets around the world, counterpointing the almost simultaneous death of Terri Schiavo in Florida. Rather than extend his life with burdensome procedures in a high-tech hospital, he died a natural death at home in the Vatican. He was sending a final message that humane treatment of the dying does not require “extraordinary means”.


IN BRIEF: sperm donors; US stem cell bills

Sperm donors: From April 1 British children born from donated sperm, eggs and embryos have the right to trace their biological parents. The impending loss of anonymity caused a shortage of sperm donors in the UK. Many IVF centres are only managing to recruit one or two donors a year even though between 350 and 450 new donors are needed each year to meet demand nationally. Professor Alison Murdoch, of the British Fertility Society, says that she fears that women will become fertility tourists and travel to low-standard clinics outside the European Union and that there will be a growth in backyard and internet sperm donation.