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Q&A: Meet the world-renowned bioethics expert coming to Denver

Dr. O. Carter Snead’s bioethics expertise is so distinguished that it gained him recognition from the pope. Not only is Dr. Snead a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the principal bioethics advisory to Pope Francis, but he’s also one of the world’s leading experts on public bioethics.

Dr. Snead is the director of the Center for Ethics and Culture and a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. He has published over 40 journal articles, book chapters and essays, and his research explores issues relating to abortion, end-of-life decision-making, neuroethics, and stem cell research.

The professor will wrap up this season’s Saint John Paul II Lecture Series April 10 at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary Refectory. He will speak on “Human Identity, Human Flourishing, and Public Bioethics.”

Ahead of his Denver visit, we asked Dr. Snead about his views on significant bioethics topics in the Catholic and secular worlds.

Q: In Colorado, adults suffering from terminal illnesses can now legally take life-ending, doctor-prescribed sleeping medication, following suit with Oregon and several other states. In your bioethics research, what are some of the flaws you’ve seen in these laws?

A: The gravest problems with these laws is that they do not have sufficient safeguards to protect the elderly, the disabled, the poor, and minorities from lethal forms of discrimination, fraud, abuse, coercion, and errors. There is no adequate mechanism to ensure genuine voluntariness at the time the lethal agent is ingested. Even though suicidal ideation is highly correlated with treatable mental illness, there are no sufficient legal mechanisms to evaluate those seeking to end their own lives. There is no psychological assessment at the time of the suicide itself. There is not even a requirement that anyone be present for the suicide. There is no mechanism to ensure that their pain is being properly managed. There is no robust informed consent requirement. And there is no reliable system of data collection. Given the structural inequalities and problems of access intrinsic to the American system of health care delivery, there is no way to craft an assisted suicide law that avoids these problems. It would be far better to allocate more resources to getting people the basic healthcare they need, managing pain properly, and ensuring access to good psychological and psychiatric services.

Q: Why do you think the pro-life argument from a strictly biological perspective is still scrutinized today, and how can Catholics better defend the Church’s position on abortion?

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A: The pro-life argument is rooted in mainstream, broadly accepted principles of biology. That is, the life of the human organism begins at fertilization. This is not in serious dispute. The argument is about what is owed to the newly conceived human being as a matter of love, care, and justice. Some argue that one does not become a “person” with human rights until she satisfies preferred criteria established by others. This often excludes those who are very young, very old, or cognitively disabled.

Catholics (and other pro-lifers) need to explain and joyfully bear witness to the truth that genuine equality and equal justice under law requires that everyone be welcomed into the circle of human care, concern, and legal protection. To exclude those who are burdensome, weak, vulnerable, or disabled is the antithesis of love and justice that underlies the best moral and legal traditions of the United States. At the same time, Catholics and other pro-lifers need to continue to care for and support those who are facing unplanned pregnancies, those who have already been wounded by abortion, and even those who advocate for and profit from abortion. We need the world to understand that we mean it when we say everyone counts — everyone is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.

Catholics (and other pro-lifers) need to explain and joyfully bear witness to the truth that genuine equality and equal justice under law requires that everyone be welcomed into the circle of human care, concern, and legal protection.”

Q: The “Catholic Ideas for a Secular World” series of which you’re the editor brings up significant topics happening in academia and the public square. Why is it important to give authors around the world this platform of discussion?

A: This series is one of the many ways in which the Center for Ethics and Culture (and, by extension, the University of Notre Dame) seeks to engage both higher academia and the public square to share truth, goodness, and beauty with all those good faith and open-minded readers who want to engage the ideas that have animated the Church for millennia and are still relevant today.

Q: What are some common misconceptions Catholics have about stem cell research?

A: Many people don’t realize that embryonic stem cell research requires the intentional use and destruction of living human beings at the earliest stages of development. Others don’t realize that there are other possible methods of pursuing scientific knowledge and life-saving cures that do not require such unjust killing. These include not only so-called “adult” stem cell research, but also the creation of cells (called “induced pluripotent state cells”) that may be able to provide all the same benefits as embryonic stem cells might. Finally, people may not realize that even though human embryonic stem cells have been studied for twenty years, there are still no “miracle cures” or even clinical treatments using them. That is not to say that there never will be, but it is worth noting in light of all the promises made at the turn of the twentieth century — none of which have been realized.

Q: Pope Francis appointed you to the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2016. What was that accomplishment like, and what are some of the projects you’ve worked on in your role there?

A: It is a great honor to advise the Holy Father on bioethical matters. Last fall I delivered a paper to the Academy on the beauty of forming families through adoption and recalling to mind that adoption is central to our identity as Christians. This summer I am part of a working group focused on genomics and gene editing.

St. John Paul II lecture series presents Doctor O. Carter Snead
April 10, 2018, 7:30 p.m.
Refectory at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
1300 S. Steele St., Denver
RSVP at archden.org/lecture


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