Friday, June 19, 2015

An Integrated Bioethics: A Reflection on Laudato Si

Michael P. McCarthy, PhD
Pope Francis's social encyclical, “Laudato Si”, issues an urgent call for responsible action rooted in solidarity, with both human and non-human others, to recognize the interconnectedness of a shared reality suffering from neglect. As a theologian, several items of significance stood out:

1) the use of gender inclusive language, the first for a social encyclical;
2) the footnotes incorporate non-Catholic, theological, and scientific resources in addition to references to other papal documents; 
3) the attempt to engage and join with non-believers in concern over the state of the environment.

These items are being well-covered elsewhere, and you would do well to read further. However, as a theologian and bioethicist, Pope Francis also strikes an important chord with his critique of a what he describes as a “dominant technological paradigm,” a paradigm prevalent in both the medical practice and medical research. 

Chapters Three and Four—of this well-researched and crafted encyclical—prove most pertinent to questions of bioethics because of its call to resist control over care as the dominant framework for discerning a course of action (106). While scientific research often claims an air of neutrality, Pope Francis describes reality as interconnected, and “that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (107). He expresses some skepticism towards established research priorities, such as Genetic Modification, that utilize resources (financial, environmental, intellectual) that take away from other potential gains with no promise of benefit for the common good (133). While he notes that the techniques employed may pose little risk, “improper or excessive application” contributes to the unjust burdens born by the “poorest of our brothers and sisters” (158). Focusing on technology and increased control, both of which present opportunities for financial gain, draws our attention away from the present sufferings of the majority of human beings and its correlation to the inattention given to environmental degradation.  

Francis wants us to connect the global inattention to the premature and unnecessary deaths of the majority of the planet’s population, reflective of a global health crisis, with the disposable utilization of environmental resources. In order to rectify these injustices, both human and environmental, we need “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (49, emphasis original). In so doing, he calls for an “integral ecology” that expresses a concern for the environment understood as “a relationship between nature and the society which lives in it” (139). His integral approach raises questions about priorities and practices for medical research and the development of new technologies to impact clinical care.

A more socially conscious approach will consider the technological resources at the hospital: do they promote control or flourishing, enhancement or sustainability? Hospital executives should more deeply probe the environmental impact for developing, using, and disposing of particularly technologies, while also considering the clinical efficacy and patient populations that stand to benefit from the technologies used. For medical research, Francis explicitly cautions against research with animals that does not offer a reasonable possibility of contributing to “caring for or saving human lives” (130). Caring for and saving human lives remains the fundamental goal of medical research, and serves as a guard against research that prioritizes economic gain and scientific development at the expense of more immediate health benefits.

Medical research and health care delivery on a global scale has historically prioritized the health needs of a few over those of the majority. Francis’s encyclical challenges us in the bioethics community to consider not only an integral ecology, but an integral bioethics that argues for a balance between the natural costs of advancement with its potential for sustainability and broad applicability for and with the society in which we live. So while a bioethics blog might be an unlikely place to read about a papal encyclical, Pope Francis’s insights challenge us to more comprehensively consider the global context of bioethics.