ABOUT BIOETHICS: Philosophical and Theological Approaches

ABOUT BIOETHICS: Philosophical and Theological Approaches

Angela Schumann

A kind of Summa of the life's work of Dr Tonti-Filippini in bioethics

Philosophical and Theological Approaches (Volume One)
by Nicholas Tonti-Filippini
(Connor Court, 2011, 197pp, $29.95, ISBN: 9-781921-421914. Available along with Volume Two from Freedom Publishing)

When a person expresses an opinion or argument, two main areas of authority are sought: education, and experience. When individuals have one of these, it is reasonable to listen to them. If both of these are present, it is most unreasonable not to give them a hearing.

In the contentious arena of bioethics, Nicholas Tonti-Filippini's voice is not one to be ignored. Not only is Dr Tonti-Filippini highly qualified, with an extensive list of academic credentials, including the current position he holds as Associate Dean and Head of Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne, he also has behind him decades of experience working on the front line of medical and social ethics, such as chairing a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Working Committee and having been Australia's first hospital ethicist in the early 1980s at St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne.

Experience of suffering

In addition to this continual contact with other people's crippling illnesses, he also has yet another experience of suffering: his own.

Diagnosed with five years to live back in 1977, and having since then walked the agonising road of chronic illness, insufficient pain medication, invasive surgeries and debilitating symptoms and medications, Tonti-Filippini has never known the luxury of holding bioethics at arm's length, but rather approached each issue with a keen empathy for the patient(s) involved. His personal accounts are honest and both heart-rending and heart-warming.

He reveals to us in his preface that it was due to these final, incapacitating stages of his illness, which have made him too ill to travel, that he has been able to write About Bioethics: Philosophical and Theological Approaches. Created in anticipation of a series of eight on a wide range of bioethical issues (of which the second is now available), it is a kind of Summa of Tonti-Filippini's life's work in this field, much of the material being drawn from various lectures and articles he has put together on these topics.

In Chapter 1, "Culture of Life", Tonti-Filippini sets out the premise from which his entire approach to bioethics stems: "Every member of the human family possesses inherent dignity and consequently has equal and inalienable rights".

He explains that this is the basis for what is meant by a "culture of life", adding that, for a believer, human dignity is not so much anthropocentric (coming from man) as theocentric (coming from God). Within this chapter he is extremely compassionate towards women and men involved in abortion, emphasising the cardinal virtues and their importance in society.

Obvious at the outset are the remarkable gentleness and firmness, clarity and sincerity with which he writes, simplifying complex ideas without stripping them of their intricacies and subtleties.

His approach in some ways reminds one of Pope John Paul II, perhaps in that it suggests the patience of one who has learned to love each individual without discrimination, and the peace of one who has seen truth and embraced it.

Chapter 2, "Foundations of Contemporary Bioethics" , looks at the distinction between negative and positive freedom (autonomy) and the relevance of this to the euthanasia debate. The author introduces us to various philosophers, such as Kant, and their approaches to the issue of autonomy.

He points out that he has written this book for students and those with an "educated interest" in these matters, and as such, the philosophy lesson in this chapter may be somewhat heavy going for the unprepared. He also provides an illuminating outline history of the rise of eugenics in the 20th century, the end of the Hippocratic tradition and how these have shaped the context of contemporary bioethics.

Role of religion

The chapters have a natural progression to them, each leading into the next very smoothly. Chapter 3, "Search for a Universal Ethic", explores the question of whether natural law, with its ability to transcend differences, is by itself enough to keep a society moral. He asserts that "the society that we confront insists on a rigid separation between religious belief and the formation of public policy", thus many believers argue that we must be prepared to argue for our moral positions from reason alone.

Tonti-Filippini respectfully rejects this pure natural law approach, citing as an example its failure in the UK, and adding that "in my experience, many people do not find the precepts of the natural law to be self-evident".

He quotes the argument of Saint Thomas Aquinas that "the theological virtues are not derived from reason but from revelation", and that a Christian morality cannot survive if faith and reason are divorced: "The problem in a secular context is how to explain the gravity of doing evil without reference to our relationship to God". He also delves into virtue ethics (think Aristotle), listing the virtues and the purposes of medicine and applying them to each other.

In Chapter 4, "In a Secular Society" , Tonti-Filippini identifies the unjust, discriminatory and bigoted (attributes usually reserved for religious folk) nature of trying to exclude religion from the public square.

It is reassuring to be reminded that our religion has just as much right to shape the laws of our country as others' secularism or atheism - more, perhaps, considering which of these has stood the test of time and shaped the traditions upon which our society has been founded.

An amusing example of such bigotry is given in Chapter 5, when Tonti-Filippini reflects that "my involvement in public policy development has been tolerated, although ... rather than being classified just in terms of my profession, the media generally insist on mentioning that I am a Catholic, though they do not as a rule mention the religious beliefs of other participants ... as though listeners ... need to be warned that the view they are about to hear is a Catholic view".

Chapter 6 includes a memorable overview of the "Gatekeepers in Biomedicine", as well as constructive reflections of Tonti-Filippini's own teaching experience. In reading this book we become his privileged students, leaving us at the end of it with a hunger for the next volume of the series.

Angela Schumann is a graduate of Campion College, Sydney.

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