"The tragic case of Terri Schiavo; So what's 'bioethics' got to do with it?: What is 'bioethics'?"

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright March 28, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

To those of us trained at the Ph.D. level in the new "bioethics", nothing has brought home the gruesome legacy of the "birth of bioethics" in 1979 like the very tragic case of Terri Schiavo. Regardless of the pleas for a strict deference to the Rule of Law, the unprecedented outpouring of disbelief and disgust at the "consequences" of this Rule of Law is palpable for all to see. What we are witnessing is -- finally -- an almost universal recognition that some how, some way, at least part of the Rule of Law involved here is, simply put, bad law -- and that drastic changes need to be made. I am speaking of those laws -- especially enshrined now in the federal Patient Self-Determination Act, and in the "health care" laws of the State of Florida and most other States -- that were set in place several years ago by bioethics lawyers aggressively pushing the right-to-die agenda; laws that have tied the hands of good jurists from the bottom of our court system to the very top.

I have stated numerous times how incredible it is to me that people still do not really know what this "bioethics" is after almost 30 years, and how it has so deformed and disabled our entire society and legal system. So perhaps it would at least help direct people's anger and concern for change by documenting for them once again the historical facts of the "birth of bioethics" by Congressional mandate in 1979 (the Belmont Report of the National Commission) -- complete with the names of all the players, organizations, early "bioethics centers", Congressional involvement, etc. (especially documented in the very lengthy endnotes). This 70-page article is accessible at the URL noted below. Many of the bioethicists sited in it are the very same people now demanding Terri Schiavo's death.

While admittedly focusing in this article on the official and blatant use of false science in human embryo research issues from the very beginning of "bioethics", it also documents with extensive references the recent Congressional history of its quite interesting and arbitrary "birth", an extensive and very critical evaluation of its normative "ethical principles", and the inherent connection in "bioethics" between the beginning of life and the end of life issues -- not to mention every point in-between. Without this historical background it is almost impossible to try to understand the related issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide -- and thus to do anything concrete about them.

By introduction, let me copy first a section of my article (page 29) in which I quote from one of the original scholars of the Hastings Center concerning his prescient fears about this new "bioethics" that they were in the process of concocting:

"[Irving] While it is undeniable that a broad range of talents were tapped, and that much great, good and heroic work was accomplished by both the National Commission and the President's Commission, an undercurrent of concern about their makeup, the definition of "ethics" used, their insistent use of false science, and the roles such commissions should play in this "multicultural, pluralistic, democratic" society was ever present. This concern was articulated sometimes by referring to such efforts as "commissioning ethics", or "federal ethics", and best summed up earlier by one of the original scholars of the Hastings Center, Robert Morison. Quoting from Jonsen:

          'Director Capron drew up a plan of action that was not merely a schedule but a concept paper that reviewed the mandates in terms of leading ideas and problems. Woven into this paper were quotations from many prominent individuals in science, policy, and ethics whose views Capron had solicited about the Commission's work. Most eloquent of these comments was a long letter from Robert Morison, professor emeritus of biology at Cornell. Professor Morison sketched his views on the relation between ethics, law, and religion and reviewed the brief history of 'the infelicitously named bioethics,' the results of which he 'was reasonably happy [with], but I fear for the future.' ... 'What one fears is that the Commission may become the mechanism whereby the speculations of the ethicists become the law of the land. It is already far too easy for abstract notions of right and wrong to emerge as deontological rules which begin their public life as 'guidelines' but culminate in the force of law.' Morison's letter was a sobering reminder of the anomalous role of an 'ethics commission' in a pluralistic, secular society.' (Albert Jonsen, The Birth of Bioethics (Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 109-110) [Emphases mine.]

          "Indeed, Morison's concerns were well-placed. As we shall see below, the recommendations of these two major bioethics commissions did indeed form the explicit basis of many regulations and laws -- both private and public, national and international."

If there is anything positive that could come of the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, let it begin with a long-needed change in these fundamentally unjust bioethics laws. Toward that end please read the article copied below for at least a start toward an intense and penetrating reevaluation of "bioethics", and a societal and professional demand for full and public accountability from those who have provided it with the Force of Law for the last 30 years.

[See Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D., "What is 'Bioethics'? (Quid est 'Bioethics'?"), in Joseph W. Koterski, Life and Learning X: Proceedings of the Tenth University Faculty for Life Conference (Washington, D.C.: University Faculty for Life, 2002), pp. 1-84)], Author's copyright June 3, 2000, at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_36whatisbioethics01.html; and at http://www.uffl.org/irving/irvwhatisbio.htm]