By Ann Carey
NOTRE DAME — Many of the vital human issues being debated in today’s culture were discussed in depth earlier this month at the 14th annual conference of the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture. With the theme “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: The Body and Human Identity,” the Nov. 7-9 conference featured presentations on topics ranging from marriage, pregnancy and parenthood to abortion, genocide, torture, genetic testing, mental health and sexual identity.
In the Nov. 7 opening keynote address, Gilbert Meilaender of Valparaiso University spoke about human procreation, saying that having children is an act of faith, hope and love. Meilaender, a theology professor who has been a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics since its inception in 2002, said that modern science has raised some “bizarre” ideas about life extension and age retardation.
Instead of being concerned about extending one’s own life span well into triple digits, he said, people should be more concerned about producing and nurturing the next generation.
“Gratitude for the sheer wonder of life is at the heart of human procreation,” Meilaender explained.
By having children, that gratitude is expressed and something of the parents is left behind in those children. Parenting also images divine life, he continued, and it trains parents in virtue as they care for and nurture the next generation for the sake of wisdom, not power.
Multiple conference sessions over the two days featured over 70 scholars and other professionals from around the United States as well as a few from abroad.
In a session on “Property and the Body” Lorenza Violini, a law professor at the University of Milan, spoke about “Human Dignity and Human Rights in the Era of Genetic Research.” She compared European laws governing genetic research to such laws in the U.S., concluding that U.S. judges have been less likely than European judges to consider the moral implications of such research, which remains less regulated in this country than in Europe.
In that same session, Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America, discussed the ethics of artificial reproductive technologies, concluding that these techniques must be rejected because children have the right to be loved and reared by their biological parents. Thus, conceiving a child with an egg or sperm donor is always morally problematic, she concluded.
Likewise, in the same session, Notre Dame Law Professor Margaret Brinig discussed surrogate motherhood. She brought out many of the moral issues regarding surrogacy, including exploitation of poor women and the commodification of children. Surrogacy is legal in many of the states, she said, but those laws look at surrogacy in terms of rights rather than the reality that in a surrogacy arrangement, a child is involved who has a relationship to the surrogate and the genetic parents, as well as the intended parents.
The Catholic Church’s position on the other hand, she said, considers relationships to be essential. The Church sees the relationship between spouses that creates life as a parallel to the love between the Father and the Son that produces the Spirit, she said.
“Parents cooperate with God the Creator and are interpreters of that love,” Brinig explained.
Presenting in a session on “The Body and Morality” was Mark Cherry, a professor of applied ethics and philosophy at St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas. Cherry cited the cultural shift against traditional sexual moral norms. Those traditional norms have been replaced by a presumption of sexual freedom and satisfaction, separated from reproduction, he said.
This extraordinary shift of disconnecting sex from traditional family life to a presumption of sexual freedom has grave social, economic and medical consequences, Cherry explained. These consequences include a rising population of children born outside marriage, exploitation of women, rise in sexually transmitted disease, demand for abortion and rejection of children judged to be disabled.
This “new morality,” Cherry said, is convinced of the non-existence of God and focused only on function, placing persons rather than God as authority.
“Without God, morality is no more than what humans make of it; without God, morality is not grounded in objective being,” he said.
This exclusion of God from the “new morality,” Cherry said, means that moral judgments are subject to change with current social and cultural fashions, with disastrous results.
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