What is bioethics?

John B. Shea
Issue: March 2003
Toronto Catholic Insight
Copyright Catholic Insight
Reproduced with Permission
Catholic Insight

The following essay was delivered as a talk to the grade 12 and 13 students of Morrow Park High School in Toronto in May 2002.

Ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation. It is of paramount importance, however, to realize at the outset, that the subject now commonly known as "bioethics" is entirely different from traditional medical ethics and from Catholic medical ethics. Traditional medical ethics, which originated with the Greek Hippocrates 2400 years ago, focuses on the physician's duty to the individual patient, whose life and welfare are sacred. Catholic medical ethics has the same focus and is grounded in the ethical principles of the Moral Law, which is a combination of natural law philosophical ethics, Divine Revelation, and the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Bioethics, better identified as secular bioethics, on the contrary, is focused on the utilitarian principle of achieving the largest possible amount of pleasure over pain, by means of maximizing a total of human 'preferences' or 'choices'. Reasoning from different principles leads to different ethical conclusions.

The Belmont Commission

Secular bioethics is based on the report of a National Commission, appointed by the U.S. Congress known as the Belmont Commission. The Commission reported in 1978, and identified three ethical principles: respect for persons (now called autonomy), justice, and beneficence. These became known as the 'Belmont Principles', and the new secular bioethics was called 'Principilism'. No one principle could overrule any of the others.

It was soon discovered that these principles could not work in practice. Also, the duty to do 'good' for an individual patient was over-ridden by the 'good' of society. 'Justice' became 'fairness', affecting the allocation of the benefits and burdens of research across society, rather than treating people fairly as individuals. The 'persons' respected in secular bioethics were only those who were capable of autonomous action. Others, the unborn, infants, the comatose, the demented etc. became 'non-persons', and therefore had no moral rights. Professor Peter Singer of Princeton, one of the most famous proponents of secular bioethics, holds that even some animals have more moral value than infants and disabled human adults.

Resolving problems by politically correct consensus The solution of a moral problem according to the Belmont principles is supposed to be the result of a 'consensus' of the opinions of those concerned about that particular moral problem. Because achieving this consensus is difficult, and in order to facilitate this consensus, Richard Rorty, an American philosopher, suggested the use of the art of persuasion, or rhetoric. Rorty, who is a nihilist and who does not believe that there is any such thing as objective moral truth, none the less holds that "By the use of rhetoric, one can change one's desires into the truth" (ref.1).

Despite these profound defects, the principles enunciated by the Belmont Report have become internationally accepted by the elites who dominate the United Nations, the European governments and the governments of United States and Canada. They have supplanted both traditional medical ethics and Catholic medical ethics in the political structures of the world, and have been adopted by the medical and legal professions, as well as by the academic world and the media.

The promoters of secular bioethics pretend to be neutral with regard to right and wrong, when in fact, they take very definite stands, for example, on the subject of the human rights of the embryo. They also present themselves as 'democratic', as basing their judgments on the views of the majority. Apart from the fact that no majority has the moral right to justify killing the unborn, these proponents of secular bioethics develop their moral positions among themselves in their own narrow academic domain regardless of any consideration except for a shrewd assessment of what is 'politically correct' at the moment. They promulgate their positions in the media as the ultimate wisdom and moral truth. The bioethicist for the governing body of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, a Canadian government body, recently (2002) solemnly announced that a regulatory commission would be set up in order to keep abreast of developments in science and technology, and with the evolution of public opinion and mores.


Other examples of this deceptive rhetoric are the vigorous denial by many in the medical profession of any connection between abortion and the significant increase in the incidence of breast cancer, and the silence of the profession about the connection between the oral contraceptive pill and breast cancer. Further deceptions are the denial of the abortifacient action of the oral so-called 'contraceptive' pill, and the false assurance that the condom will protect against sexually transmitted diseases. These falsifications are motivated by, and are the logical consequence of, the acceptance by secular bioethics of freedom of choice in regard to sexual intercourse and abortion.

Another important deception of the new secular bioethics is that from its inception, its supporters have promoted a false version of certain critical scientific facts in order to forward their cause. In the U.S.A., a National Commission (1975) defined a "fetus" as beginning at "implantation" (5 - 7 days after fertilization). Before that, they were said to be only a "pre embryo". "Human being" and "embryo" were not defined. "Pregnancy" was defined as beginning at implantation. But in fact, science has known since the 1880's, that a human embryo, a human being, comes into existence at fertilization, which takes place in the fallopian tube. It is at the moment of fertilization that a woman becomes pregnant, becomes a mother.

A further falsehood promoted by secular bioethics is the idea that a human embryo, a human being, is not a person at the moment of conception. The point at which secular bioethics claims that a person comes into existence is said, arbitrarily, to vary according to the anatomical and physiological criteria used. Some say at implantation (5 - 7 days after fertilization), some 14 days (formation of the primitive streak), some, at 'brain-birth' (formation of the neocortex of the brain, later in pregnancy) etc. Before those varying end-points, we are told, there is only a "pre embryo", or a "collection of stem cells." The fact is that all of these claims are based on erroneous science, and imply a dualistic split between the soul and the body. But the soul and body exist as one single substance and come into existence at the same time, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. The same secular bioethics denies personhood to those who have lost their cognitive and intellectual faculties, e.g., persons with diminished cognitive ability such as those with dementia or who are in the so-called vegetative state.

Deceptions justify false thinking

By using false science and moral thinking based on false science, secular bioethicists try to justify "abortion, contraception, the use of abortifacients, prenatal diagnosis with the intent to abort defective babies, surrogate motherhood, human embryo and fetal research, human cloning, the formation of human chimeras (cross-breeding with other species), human embryonic and stem cell research, purely experimental high risk research on the mentally ill, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and living wills documenting consent to just about anything, and the withdrawal of food and hydration as an extraordinary measure." (ref.2). All of these practices are judged unethical by Catholic medical ethics, which is based on ethical principles derived from the Moral Law.

Duty of Catholics

The above unethical practices and many more are supported and promoted daily in our media. Therefore, Catholic physicians, researchers, and ethicists have a moral responsibility vigorously and publicly to counteract this propaganda. We are advised in the words of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications in its pastoral instruction Dawn of New Era that "Where legal and political structures foster the domination of the media by elites, the Church, for its part, must urge respect for the right to communicate ... while at the same time seeking alternative models of communication for its own members and for people at large".

The Moral Law is a combination of natural law, philosophical ethics, Divine Revelation, and the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the universe was caused, and is cared for, by God. He rules the world by an idea in His intellect, which is the eternal law. This law is reflected in the nature of all created things. It is part of our human nature to act freely by being inclined towards our proper acts and end. We must therefore use our reason to discover what is best for us in order to flourish and to achieve our end, the purpose for which we live. By considering the nature of things we can discover the natural law, which is the Divine Law, inasmuch as it is understood by human reason alone.

The first rule is that we must do good and avoid evil. At a basic level, we must preserve ourselves in being. We must not commit suicide. We must take care of our life and transmit life to the next generation. We must rear and care for offspring. We must develop our rational and moral capacities in the virtues of the mind (prudence, art, and science) and of the will (justice, courage, temperance). We must function harmoniously as a society ( we must not kill or steal). We have an infinite capacity to know and love, and this capacity shows that we are destined to know and to love an infinite Being, God. (ref.3).

Sometimes it is not immediately clear what the moral course of action should be. Social and rational discourse are often necessary in order to determine the facts (such as scientific or economic) of a given case which involves a moral problem. However, secular bioethicists' consensus, or laws and court judgments based on public opinion, are not the proper basis on which to determine the moral principles on which moral decisions are frequently made. Through Divine Revelation, we know that the fall of Adam and Eve "darkened our mind, weakened our will, and left us with a strong inclination to evil." We know that through the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Christ, we have been redeemed. If we believe in Him and are baptized, through prayer and the sacraments, we are given the grace to lead a good life and attain eternal salvation. Sacred Tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium, guided by the Holy Spirit, help us to discern right from wrong and to lead morally good lives in a world in which, due to the rapid changes in science and technology, we are constantly presented with situations in which the morally good course of action may be difficult to discern.

Catholic moral teaching is therefore a possession which is not only necessary for us to know, but is something which medical care-givers and medical ethicists have a moral obligation to put into practice, not only for our own spiritual good, but for the benefit of those not of the faith. They must not hide the light of faith, but let it shine for all to see. As Pope John Paul II said in a message to the Federation of Catholic University Students, on April 26, 2002, "Your mission consists in being 'leaven, salt, and light' of the Gospel in the realm of scientific research and professional training" "In order to achieve this", he added, " it is necessary above all, to cultivate an intense spiritual life, nourished by listening to the Word of God, assiduous prayer, (and) participation in the liturgy of the Church. Together with the commitment to study and related activities, above all awareness of being contemplative of the mystery of God, must never be lacking".


  1. Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth. pp. 8 - 9
  2. "The Bioethics Mess"? Crisis Magazine May 2001 and "What is bioethics" by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, Ph.D.
  3. http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/natlaw.html