Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Holy Family Retreat

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Father Tad Pacholczyk

Making Sense of Bioethics

It seems odd, even a bit repulsive, when we encounter tales of elderly men running after women who are young enough to be their granddaughters. The wheelchair-bound billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall was 89 years old when he married the 26-year-old Anna Nicole Smith. He had met the Playboy model and reality TV star in a strip club. Anna insisted that she really did love the old man, and wasn’t in it for the money.

With age should come wisdom. It’s appropriate and fitting for older men to leave behind their former ways, and no longer live and act like college frat boys. It’s right to expect growth in self-control as we mature, and to expect a more reflective and sober approach to life. Growing old invariably offers us the opportunity to redirect our focus, and as our body weakens, our mind and soul can be drawn to consider matters we may have previously avoided, like death and that which awaits us beyond death’s threshold. Our later years can powerfully provoke us to come to terms with our destiny and with higher truths.

In a recent column, Father Ron Rolheiser, quoting James Hillman, speaks to the graces that aging and infirmity can bring our way:

“Why have God and nature so structured things that as we age and mature and are finally more in control of our lives, our bodies begin to fall apart, and we need a bevy of doctors and medicines to keep functioning? Is there some wisdom in the very DNA of the life process that mandates the breakdown of physical health in late life? Hillman says, yes. There’s an innate wisdom in the process of aging and dying: the best wines have to be aged in cracked old barrels. The breakdown of our bodies deepens, softens, and matures the soul.”

I once overheard a hospital nurse chatting with one of her patients and was caught a bit offguard when she nonchalantly declared, with a little twinkle in her eye, “When we get to be over 40, who doesn’t have hemorrhoids?”

The comment, I thought, reflected a healthy, positive attitude toward aging and infirmity. Unavoidably, our bodies decline. Our strength wanes. We get hemorrhoids and warts and cancers and high blood pressure and male pattern balding.

In the midst of it all, we can accept our lot with grace and gratitude. A serene acceptance of our struggles, and even of the specific death that awaits us, is surely a great virtue.

But aging gracefully is not something many of us tend to do well. We resist the idea. We may cling to the fantasy of eternal youth. Some in our society even push the notion that we shouldn’t have to put up with the challenges of infirmity, and instead ought to receive help from the medical system so we can beat a hasty retreat to the exit. By pushing for physician-assisted suicide, they encourage us to despise the good of our own lives and to reject the graces that arise from our struggles by choosing to ingest any of a number of doctor-prescribed poisons.

On the other hand, by embracing our particular path into death, and by offering up our trials, we acquire a poise of soul and human maturity that orients us toward our destiny, a destiny in the hereafter that so many seem largely oblivious to. By letting our infirmities existentially speak to us, and coming to realize how true it is that we have no permanent dwelling here, we begin to grapple with that mysterious truth that heaven and home are synonymous.

Aging gracefully also involves recognizing and accepting the shortening of the time ahead of us and the lengthening of the time behind us. Even as we achieve a much-sought independence in our lives, we begin to cycle back toward a renewed dependence on others, on caregivers, family and the community, and we may even come to the realization that our own mind will have to be surrendered if dementia comes our way. All of this can instruct us, if we accept it with grace, in the wisdom of relinquishing our own willfulness once again like little children, and returning to a humble framework of interdependence in our shared destiny with others and with God.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

Contraceptives include drugs and devices like condoms, the Pill and spermicides. It might come as a surprise to some to learn that the Catholic Church does not always oppose the “use of contraceptives.” A couple of trivial examples can help explain this point. The church would not oppose the use of a contraceptive spermicidal gel to lubricate the axle of a bicycle tire to improve its rotation, nor would it specifically oppose the use of inflated condoms as party balloons. The particular context is important. More serious examples of acceptable contexts and uses for contraceptives would include using the Pill medically to treat serious gynecological problems, or using the Pill to block the release of an egg from a woman’s ovary in a situation of rape to protect her from becoming pregnant from the attack. Contrary to popular confusion, as we can see, the church does not always oppose the “use of contraceptives.”

Making sense out of bioethics

Human beings can have a visceral reaction to the thought of growing human kidneys or livers inside the bodies of pigs or cows. A participant in a recent online forum on human/animal chimeras – in medicine, defined as “a person composed of two genetically distinct types of cells” – described it this way: “Unbelievable!!! … If there was anything that was more anti-God it is the genetic formation of chimeras which is nothing more than Frankenstein monster creation.”

Although the idea of a chimeric animal is indeed unusual, several factors need to be considered in evaluating the practice of growing human organs within animals. Despite our initial hesitations, certain kinds of human/animal chimeras are likely to be justifiable and reasonable. This comes into focus when we recognize, for example, how thousands of patients who have received replacement heart valves made out of pig or cow tissues are already themselves a type of human/animal chimera. For many years, moreover, scientists have worked with chimeric mice that possess a human immune system, enabling them to study the way that HIV and other viruses are able to infect cells.

We routinely use animals to address important human needs. We eat them and make clothing out of them. We keep them in zoos. Utilizing them for legitimate and important medical purposes like organ generation and transplantation should not, broadly speaking, be a cause for alarm. As another online participant noted, only half in jest: “Think of it – a pig provides a human heart, lungs and liver then the rest is eaten for dinner! …. Plus the pig will likely be chemical-free, well-fed and humanely treated.”

If a pig were, in fact, able to grow a human kidney in place of its own kidney, and if it could be used for transplantation, it could provide a major new source of organs in the face of the critical shortage that currently exists. Many patients today are on waiting lists for a kidney, and a significant percentage die before an organ ever becomes available.

Yet significant technical and ethical hurdles remain before growing organs in pigs is likely to be feasible. The science is still in its infancy, and researchers have yet to figure out how to make human cells co-exist in a stable fashion with animal tissues. There are abundant concerns about the possibility of transmitting animal viruses to humans, especially considering how readily other viruses like avian flu have been able to jump from birds to humans.

Even assuming these kinds of risks are able to be minimized, and pig/human chimeras could be safely produced, there would still be several ethical issues to consider. One concern involves using stem cells from human embryos as part of the process of making pig/human chimeras. Typically, scientists try to generate chimeras by adding human embryonic stem cells to animal embryos, which then grow up and develop into chimeric animals. Destroying young humans in their embryonic stages for their stem cells is gravely objectionable, so creating chimeras could be ethical only if alternative, non-embryonic sources of stem cells (like adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells) were utilized for the procedure.

The technology might also lend itself to other unethical practices, like trying to create a pig that could produce human sperm or eggs in its genitalia. Similarly, if human nerve cells were incorporated into a developing pig brain in such a way that the animal developed what appeared to be human brain structures, some have noted there could be questions about the occurrence of intelligence or self-consciousness or other facets of human identity in the animal. Although such concerns seem farfetched, given the dearth of knowledge about the “scaffolding of consciousness,” it seems reasonable to limit this kind of experimentation. Some scientific agencies like the National Institutes of Health have restricted the availability of research funds for the study of human/animal chimeras because of these and other considerations, seeking to levy pressure so that the needed ethical discernment and discussion occurs before researchers proceed further.

We tend to view modern scientific progress as a powerful “engine of good” for the well-being of mankind, and therefore we view most scientific research with hope. This is proper and fitting, and to reinforce and reinvigorate that hope, we should continue to insist that cutting edge biomedical research remain in active dialogue and interaction with sound ethics. The expanding study of human/animal chimeras challenges us to reflect carefully on the morally appropriate use of these novel and powerful technologies, so that human dignity will not be harmed, subjugated or misappropriated in any way.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

Addiction can be extremely harmful, and in some cases, fatal for those individuals ensnared by it. It can be seriously disruptive and damaging to those around them. Who is to blame when it comes to addiction? Family and friends may think to themselves, “Why can’t Jane just stop drinking?” Or, “Doesn’t Joe understand that his gambling addiction is bankrupting the family?” Or, “Can’t Bob see how his pornography habit is destroying his marriage and his relationships?” For those facing addiction, it seems they ought to be able to recognize their behavior as harmful and turn away from it by a resolute decision. Family and friends, however, can face years of frustration when they see their loved ones fall into a slow motion “crash and burn,” spiraling downward as they remain unwilling or unable to step away from their addiction.

Individuals caught in the web of addiction objectively fall prey to a loss of personal freedom. Their will becomes weakened, and they become enslaved in a way that limits their ability to recognize the right order of goods in life. By repetitively choosing the addictive behavior, it becomes ingrained, and the ability to choose better, alternative behaviors becomes enfeebled, if not seemingly impossible. For these reasons, there is almost always diminished personal responsibility in situations of addiction. To be accountable for our acts, we must freely choose those acts, but the internal pressure and downward spiral of the addiction may have already co-opted the individual’s ability freely to choose otherwise. Eventually, this bondage can appear to be permanent, and addicted individuals can imagine themselves pathetic and hopeless to such a degree that they almost give up. In the words of a formerly addicted individual:

“I believe that I did not have a choice to stop. ...  It never became clear to me that I could live another way until a medical intervention from my physician and friends took place. Willpower plays a small role here, but it too cannot work if one has a malfunctioning brain. I speak for myself here … I could not stop. Period. Now, I have stopped. Not just because of the intervention, but because I have turned my life and my will over to the God of my understanding. That is something 12 step programs have taught me.”

This radical loss of freedom lies at the heart of the tragedy of addiction. Because we are creatures of habit, the choices we make, either for good or for evil, form us in one direction or the other, so we become individuals who are either capable or incapable of choosing the good freely. Virtue is a habit of good, while vice is a habit of evil. Early choices leading down the road toward addiction, freely made, can quickly snowball into vice, addiction and a loss of freedom. As one recovered addict graphically described it:

“My beef is with those who claim that they never chose to become an addict or never chose to hurt their families. ... While we likely didn’t intend to end up helpless, dysfunctional people who [hurt] our loved ones, the choices we made put us at risk of ending up in a sorry state where we were capable of doing things we would have never dreamed of. Unless you were raised on Mars, we all deep down knew the risk of our choices, especially if you’re talking about coke, crack, meth or heroin, but we chose to roll the dice anyways. At a certain point, when I was starting to do coke almost every weekend, I knew that it would be wise to stop, but I chose not to because I was having fun and I told myself it will never happen to me. By the end, I was going on solo three-day benders with alcohol and cocaine, and I landed in treatment. … My point is that I made the choice to try the substance, the choice to begin to use the substance more regularly and the choice not to quit when I could have.”

While there may have been significant moral culpability at the beginning of an individual’s descent into addiction, it is still critical for us to never stigmatize, patronize or abandon those who are in the throes of addiction. They may feel they are defined entirely by their addiction, unlovable and wretched, rather than seeing that they are, in fact, human beings who are precious to God and those around them, and even now endowed with some tiny space of remaining freedom. That tiny space will become key to determining whether they ultimately choose the behavioral changes needed to improve their situation and recover the human freedom that is rightfully theirs. We should support, encourage and love them in ways that will help lead them toward those good choices and successful outcomes.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

Sometimes people will point out: “We euthanize our pets when they suffer, and they are clearly creatures of God, so why can’t we euthanize a sick and suffering person who wants it? It seems like we treat our dogs and cats better than we treat our suffering family members.”

The way we treat animals, however, should not be the measure of how we treat fellow human beings. We keep animals as pets, but we don’t do the same with humans. We use animals to make clothing and food, but we don’t do the same with humans. For all our similarities to the rest of the animal kingdom, we are aware of a fundamental difference in kind between ourselves and our furry friends. We are not meant to die just as animals do, or be euthanized as they are. The death of a human is a more complex event that has other important realities associated with it.

In euthanizing a cat or dog, an assessment about the nature of the creature is rolled up into our decision to proceed. Our pets seem to process the world around them mostly in terms of pleasure and pain, oscillating between these two poles as they instinctively gravitate toward pleasurable experiences, and engage in “mechanisms of avoidance” when they come up against pain or discomfort. Animals lack that uniquely human power to reason about, resign themselves to and allow good to be drawn out of pain. Animals can’t do much else in the face of their suffering apart from try to skirt around it, escape the situation or passively endure it. Because of our strong sense of empathy, humans find it more emotionally acceptable to “put the animal to sleep,” rather than watch it suffer a long and agonizing death.

But it would be false empathy, and a false compassion, to promote the killing or suicide of suffering family members. As human beings, we have real moral duties, and better options, in the face of our own pain and tribulations. On an instinctual level, we tend to recoil and do our best to avoid suffering, just like animals. But we are able to respond in a way that animals cannot, and even willingly accept our suffering, which is unavoidably part of the fabric of our human existence. None of us lives out our life without encountering some suffering, even if it may be purely internal, like the agony that comes from loneliness, isolation, depression or rejection. Every person must, in one way or another, confront suffering along the trajectory of life, and human maturity is partially measured by how we deal with suffering.

Those who live with serious disabilities, through their determined and beauty-filled lives and example, remind us every day of the good that can be drawn from suffering. The way they deal with their struggles manifests the depths of what it is to be authentically human. It is precisely disability, with its disfigurement, impairment, vulnerability and dependance, that challenges us to grasp the outlines of our human journey in a less superficial way, and to value human life and protect human dignity in sickness as well as in health. Victoria Kennedy spoke to this same point when describing Senator Kennedy’s final months:

“When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer, he was told that he had only two to four months to live. … But that prognosis was wrong. Teddy lived 15 more productive months.… Because that first dire prediction of life expectancy was wrong, I have 15 months of cherished memories. … When the end finally did come – natural death with dignity – my husband was home, attended by his doctor, surrounded by family and our priest.”

As human beings, we reach beyond the limits that suffering imposes by a conscious decision to accept and grow through it, like the athlete or the Navy Seal who pushes through the limits of his exhaustion during training. We enter into an awareness of something greater behind the veil of our suffering when we come to accept it as an integral component of our human condition. We also give positive example, strength and encouragement to the younger generation as they witness our response to, and acceptance of, our own suffering. Our trials and tribulations also teach us about our reliance on God and the illusions of self-reliance.

On the other hand, if our fear of suffering drives us to constant circumlocution and relentless avoidance, even to the point of short-circuiting life itself through euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, we can miss those mysterious but privileged moments that invite us to become more resplendently human, with all the messiness, awkwardness and agonies that are invariably part of that process.

Father 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, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org.

Making Sense of Bioethics

While some parents might be happy to avoid the awkward conversations that arise around human sexuality by allowing the school system to provide their children’s sex education, it is nonetheless important for parents to recognize that they are the most significant teachers and models for their own children as they mature sexually.

Making Sense of Bioethics 

James Parker came out at age 17 and later entered into a relationship with another man. He worked as a gay activist for a while, but his personal experiences of intimacy and human sexuality eventually led him to grasp that “same-sex marriage just doesn’t exist; even if you want to say that it does.” He concluded that trying to persuade those with homosexual inclinations that they can have marriage like heterosexual couples is basically to “hoodwink” them: “Deep down, there is no mystery between two men, ultimately.”

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