Consenting to the Unconscionable

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

In recent years, scientists in industry and academia have come to rely on freshly obtained human tissue specimens for certain types of research and experimentation. Sometimes these tissues and organs can be obtained after routine surgeries like gall bladder removal from adults or foreskin removal during the circumcision of newborns. The use of such tissues and organs can be morally acceptable if the patient (or the parents of the newborn) provide informed consent. The use of cells and tissues from fetuses can also be morally acceptable when those cells are obtained from a natural miscarriage, and the parents provide consent. This would be equivalent to consenting to an organ donation from their deceased child.

Recently, however, a phenomenon has come to light that involves the partnering of biomedical researchers with abortionists, for the purpose of securing a reliable supply of human tissues and organs. In these cases, parental consent (usually from the mother) may be sought prior to using the aborted child’s remains. Researchers claim this consent is necessary to enable the ethical use of the cells or tissues. This procedural detail is frequently described in the section called “Materials and Methods” found in scientific research papers, as, for example, in this February 2015 article on brain research in the journal Science:

“Human fetal brain tissue was obtained from the [clinic], following elective pregnancy termination and informed written maternal consents, and with approval of the local University Hospital Ethical Review Committees.”

Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the United States, also seeks maternal consent prior to procuring fetal body parts from direct abortions, as chronicled by the Center for Medical Progress in their bombshell 2015 video exposé in which the sales of fetal heart, lungs, brain and liver were discussed and negotiated.

The strong public outcry that followed these revelations of harvesting fetal organs was understandable on the one hand, yet difficult to explain on the other, since there hadn’t been a parallel outcry when it came to the more offensive act of terminating the life of the unborn child itself. As one commentator observed, “Maybe it is not enough to be outraged at abortion on its face because, I don’t know, killing is somehow worse if body parts are sold.”

Despite this inconsistency, it is nonetheless clear that the use of tissues and organs from direct abortions raises significant moral concerns, even if the mother’s signature may have been sought and obtained.

Typically when we serve as a proxy for someone and give consent on their behalf, we act simply as their agent and provide an affirmation of their original wishes (“yes, he told me he wanted to donate his kidneys”). Alternatively, if we do not know the wishes of the deceased patient, we do our best to make a reasonable decision based on the specifics of their situation, using a “best interest” standard (“based on my friendship with him and concern for him, I think he really would have wanted to donate his kidneys). When we serve as a proxy decision maker for a fetus, an infant, or a deceased child prior to the age of reason, it is incumbent on us to make a “best interest” decision on their behalf. The assumption is that as we cared for them in life, and had their best interests in mind while they were living, we can continue to exercise that “best interest” decision-making capacity later when they are deceased.

But if the mother of an aborted child were to sign the dotted line granting permission to utilize fetal cells and organs, that consent would necessarily be void, because she would have already categorically demonstrated that she does not have the best interests of her child in mind, having arranged for the taking of that child’s life. From the ethical point of view, she has disqualified herself from being able to give valid informed consent on behalf of her now-deceased child.

In the absence of proper informed consent, taking organs or tissues from the corpse would represent a further violation of the integrity of the child’s body and constitute a failure to respect the remains of the dead. Thus, the tissues and organs of the directly aborted child should not be utilized for research, transplantation or the development of therapies, but instead should be given a proper and respectful burial. In the final analysis, maternal consent cannot provide moral clearance for researchers to utilize fetal remains from direct abortions in their research. Such permission from the mother is not, objectively speaking, an authentic form of consent but is rather a type of “sham consent” that secures the veneer of legitimacy for what is ultimately an unconscionable research practice.

Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA