Sentences with the two words “Pope” and “bioethics” are normally accompanied by a “not”: prohibitions of therapies and criticisms of theories. Pope Francis’s latest remarks mark a refreshing change in style, though not in substance.
In an address this week to the Italian National Bioethics Committee, the Pope set down priorities for bioethicists.
1. “The inter-disciplinary analysis of the causes of environmental degradation.” This is obviously a topic dear to his heart, as he devoted an entire encyclical to it last year. But it is not a conventional topic for bioethicists, Catholic or not.
2. “Disability and marginalization of vulnerable subjects”. This appears to be a new way of approaching the traditional Catholic insistence on protecting life from conception to natural death. “It is the challenge of opposing the throwaway culture, which has so many expressions today, among which is treating human embryos as disposable material, and also sick and elderly persons approaching death.”
3. International regulation of medical and biological activity.
One interesting aspect of his brief discourse was his assertion that “the Church does not claim any privileged space in this field, rather, she is satisfied when the civil conscience is able to reflect, discern and work, at various levels, on the basis of free and open rationality and of the constitutive values of the person and of society”. In other words, Francis seems to be claiming that a Catholic bioethicist should not use arguments drawn from faith but from reason. However, as always, he insisted that the ultimate purpose of bioethics is the service of the human person:
“the person in his singularity, always as an end and never simply as a means. This ethical principle is also fundamental in regard to the bio-technological applications in the medical field, which can never be used in a way that is harmful to human dignity, and even less be guided by industrial and commercial ends alone.”
The US Department of Health and Human Services has ruled that that transgender people are entitled to sex-change surgery provided under Medicare Advantage insurers. An Air Force veteran, Charlene Lauderdale, sought coverage for her transitioning surgery in November 2014 but it was denied because it was not the proper treatment for her, as she had been hospitalised four times for psychiatric problems.
The background to this decision is instructive. For many years, Medicare refused to cover transgender surgery. But in May 2014 a HHS Appeals Board ruled that this exclusion was based on outdated, incomplete, and biased science and medicine.
It turns out that the board reached its decision in a rather unusual way. In 1981 Medicare described sex reassignment surgery as “controversial” and “experimental” and said that it should not be covered. When this was appealed in 2013, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) declined to defend the old determination. The only evidence presented to the appeals board was submitted by advocacy groups supporting the “aggrieved party”. The CMS presented not one sentence of evidence.
Our legal system is adversarial and its integrity depends on an honest clash between opposing points of view. Why did the CMS throw in the towel? Did it really believe that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever which might question the benefits of transgender surgery? It certainly exists.
In fact, a 2014 review about research into suicide and transgender population found “an unparalleled level of suicidal behavior among transgender adults”. This was compiled by the Williams Institute, at the UCLA School of Law, an LGBT think tank, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Their conclusions are also quite sobering: “The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.”
Bioethics must always be based on evidence. Ignoring contrary evidence, as the HHS seems to have done, not only corrupts the legal process, it could do immense harm to vulnerable people.Michael Cook
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