By Rev.Fr Leonard Emeka Owuamanam, SC and Felix Ikem Odibe
It is obvious today that the rapid progress in biomolecular technology and medicine has generated a lot of techniques that have raised a lot of questions and doubts on what were traditionally considered normal way of living and common values. For instance, in the past, no one doubted the fact the marriage exists between a man and a woman; procreation is a fruit of conjugal union; life begins at the moment of fertilization of the ovum by the sperm in the fallopian tube etc. But today, the immense knowledge offered by rapid growth in Reproductive medicine has put all these traditional beliefs into question and has raised several serious ethical problems. This is where the intervention of Bioethics becomes indispensable in order to ensure the continuous respect and promotion of human life, dignity, and ethical values in the midst of the growing bimolecular technology. If not controlled, medicine and biotechnology will reduce man to mere mechanical object for every kind of manipulation and research.
It is in the face of such unbridled development that it becomes a very vital tool to defend and promote human life, value, and dignity. This is why Van Ransalaer Potter (1970) considers Bioethics as a bridge to the future. Bioethics is a discipline that studies human action on life. In formulating the concept “bioethics”, Potter writes: “I chose the root “bio” to represent biological knowledge, the science of living creatures; and “ethics” to represent knowledge of human value system. Since its emergence, bioethics has acquired great place in shaping global debates and sensitive issues like modern family, surrogacy, homosexuality, transgender, artificial intelligence, abortion, suicide, genital mutilation, euthanasia, sterilization, genetic mutation, eugenics, artificial reproduction, human cloning, homosexual marriage, crioconservation, sperm and gamete donation, population control etc. These issues are obviously shaping the value system today. They are threatening dignity of human life and human survival. In expressing the seriousness of bioethical issues today, Benedict XVI (2011) affirms that when man acquires inconceivable biotechnological power, he can destroy the world; he can manipulate himself; he can make human beings and can deny them their humanity. In the same vein, D’Agostino (2010) affirms that through technology, man can freely form everything. Massimo Losito (2013) holds that the artificial fertilization is another way to procreate; human-animal hybridation is another way to structure a biological identity. It becomes imperative for our ecclesial community to acquaint herself with bioethics in order to confront the pastoral issues emanating from the rapid growth in biomolecular technology and medicine.
THE CATHOLIC MAGISTERIUM AND BIOETHICS:
It is abundantly clear that bioethics has become a useful tool for the Church in dealing with some of the sensitive sexual and medical problems in the modern age. Bioethical knowledge is central in the position of the Church on abortion, prenatal diagnosis, quality of life, vaccines, paedophilia, euthanasia, research on human beings, cloning, artificial reproduction and insemination, eugenic selection, nuclear energy, ecology, infertility, right to a child, contraceptives, contra gestation, homosexual, transgender, crioconservation etc. The impact of bioethics on the teachings of the Church is manifested in the publication of the following magisterial documents: Gift of Life (Donum Vitae), Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Dignity of the Person (Dignitas Personae), Human Person (Persona Humana), Pastoral Care for the Homosexual, Humanae Vitae etc. In these documents, the Church has attempted to respond to the ethical questions related to patient autonomy, physician autonomy and problems such as:
- Should fertility clinics be required to offer services to gay or lesbian couples?
- Should parents have the right to refuse lifesaving medical care for their children because of religious beliefs?
- Should couples solve their infertility problems through artificial fertilization or surrogacy?
- Should a foetus with deformation discovered during prenatal diagnosis be aborted?
- Under what condition can a catholic doctor be permitted to perform abortion?
- Should people with same sex orientation be allowed to receive Holy Communion?
- Under what conditions can vaccines containing biological materials be accepted?
These are just some of the delicate issues in which bioethics serves a vital tool for the Church. The issues of Bioethics and life are treated within the Vatican Pontifical Academy for Life.
BIOETHICS AND THE NIGERIAN CHURCH:
Due to the urgency of the emerging ethical issues, sound knowledge and formation in bioethics has become necessary for pastoral activities in Nigeria. Some of these issues are not openly discussed due inadequate knowledge and formation in Bioethics. Yet these are problems facing us in our pastoral ministry. Also, in our hospitals and schools, our doctors and health workers need regular seminars on bioethical issues relating to their profession in the light of the magisterial teachings in bioethics. Again, with the introduction of sex education in our schools, it is necessary to investigate the principles driving such sex education to avoid the complexities of LGBTQ+ sponsored sex education. We are not ignorant of the strong push and lobby to legalize homosexual in Nigeria via legislations that permit such practices. In such contest, the church through bioethics can be of great assistance to our catholic legislators, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and clergy. Nigeria is a big target from western world due to its strong conservative orientation on moral and ethical issues. Today techno science, globalization and the emerging corrosive global politics can make it easy to penetrate and subsequently break such conservative position.
WHO CAN BE A BIOETHICIST?
The actual work of bioethicists transcends both the public and the clinical spheres. Professional bioethicists come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many of the founders of bioethics were academic philosophers or physicians. Today, practitioners of bioethics include the clergy, physicians, philosophers, nurses, lawyers, pharmacists, and research scientists.
WHERE DOES NIGERIA STAND IN BIOETHICS?
Interest in bioethics in Nigeria was born out of the fatal consequences of Pfizer vaccine on meningitis in Nigeria. In 1996, the largest ever epidemic of meningococcal meningitis occurred in Nigeria with 300,000 cases and 30,00 fatalities. Pfizer, who was then in the process of registering Trovafloxacin with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of infections including bacterial meningitis, saw a window of opportunity in Nigeria to conduct a phase II clinical trial of the drug in cases of paediatric cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM) (Evuleocha, 2012). At that time, Pfizer discovered that Nigeria had no proper formation and regulatory body in research ethics and many of the medical institutions in Nigeria had no functional ethics research committees. Nigeria became free for all games for Pfizer resulting in many casualties during the clinic trial. This is the condition that led to the formation of first bioethics study center at the University of Ibadan by Dr. Clement Adebamowo in 2004. Though a very young field of study, it has so many possibilities to explore. Nigeria is still plagued by shortage of experts in Bioethics and the UNESCO arm of the United Nations are striving to create a strong bioethics background in Nigeria and other African countries.
Because of the pace of advance in molecular biology, far-reaching new medical techniques are likely to be produced over the next few years. Novel inventions and medical interventions will inevitably raise ethical problems at least as difficult as those that have already emerged. An increased knowledge and formation in bioethics could help the Church and the country keep the new ethics not too many steps behind new techniques. The Ultimate bioethical question remains: “In an effort to safeguard the dignity of human life in the face of rapid advancement in biomedical technologies, where do we draw the line?”
– Rev. Fr Emeka Owuamanam (SC), is the President of the Nigerian Catholic Bioethics Association, Rome. (firstname.lastname@example.org).
– Felix Odibe is a seminarian of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha undertaking his Bioethics Licentiate studies in Rome. He is interested in Catholic Bioethics, Epigenetics and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.