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It's time to engage the 'conscience of the nation' on bioethics

  • 26 June 2006
I make no claim to being a bioethicist. I daresay Thomas More made no such claim, and would not, even were he alive today. Even those of us who are not bioethicists are entitled to our opinions about the desirable law and policy affecting bioethical issues and about the political morality of those advocates who urge a particular law or policy on bioethical issues.

I make no claim to speak for the Catholic Church. But inspired by Thomas More, I trust I take my inspiration from Catholic moral teaching as I then wrestle with questions about what is the appropriate law or policy on vexed issues in Australia.

As a Jesuit and a lawyer I take some heart from that scene in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret, says, ‘Father, that man’s bad.’ More answers, ‘There is no law against that.’ His son–in–law, William Roper: ‘There is! God’s law!’ More: ‘Then God can arrest him. . . . The law, Roper, the law. I know what’s legal, not what’s right. And I’ll stick to what’s legal. . . . I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.’ Alas we must sail in the currents and eddies of right and wrong as well as tracing our path through the thickets of law and public policy.

In recent months, I have been drawn into public discussion about bioethical issues twice – first with the release of the Lockhart Review on stem cell research and then with Parliament’s debate on RU486. On each occasion I have been assisted in my own thinking by the public utterances of Bishop Anthony Fisher who is well schooled and learned in bioethical issues and the Catholic tradition.

I have bought into the controversy over stem cell research because I have thought that the Lockhart Committee exceeded its brief, and am convinced that some of the advocates for embryonic stem cell research have played fast and loose with the processes of political deliberation.

Involved tangentially in these issues, I have become concerned that the church risks marginalising itself and rendering its message incomprehensible. There must be acknowledgment by church leaders of the margin of appreciation afforded conscientious Catholic lawmakers and policy makers on issues