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No More Important Value than Respect for Life

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
2 Nov 2015

Dr Somerville warns of of the increasing erosion of society's values and dangers of reproductive technology

Australia, as well as other western nations, is in the midst of a crisis of conflict between respect for individual autonomy and protection of the common good, says internationally renowned medical ethicist and lawyer, Dr Margaret Somerville and warns that the balance has swung dangerously towards the former and needs urgent correction.

In her ground-breaking new book, Bird on the Ethics Wire: Battle about Values in the Culture Wars, Adelaide-born founder and Director of Canada's McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and holder of professorships in both the Faculty of Law and the Facility of Medicine at McGill University, addresses many of today's most controversial, divisive and hotly debated issues.

Published by McGill-Queens University Press the book has just gone on sale across Canada on 1 November and will be available in Australia at leading bookstores and online distributors from mid November.

In her book, Dr Somerville who strongly believes there is no more important value than respect for life, takes on the ethics of such contentious value issues as euthanasia, abortion, reproductive technologies, the concept of human dignity, the post modern context of birth and death, and the questions we need to be asking to help us better identify ethical issues and insight into how to deal with them.

Australian-born Dr Margaret Somerville Founder and Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Canada

"In the past few decades we have recognised that our physical ecosystem is not indestructible - indeed it is vulnerable and can be irreparably damaged - and that we have obligations to future generations to care for it. The same is true for our metaphysical ecosystem, the values, principles, attitudes, beliefs and shared stories that bind us together as a society - likewise in trust for them," Dr Somerville says.

However she warns that to hold our metaphysical ecosystem in trust for future generations will require wisdom, ethical restraint, the old virtue of prudence and courage from all of us, both young and old.

Dr Somerville has been a fearless, outspoken and unrelenting critic of Canadian Supreme Court rulings which saw the legalisation of marriage between same sex couples in July 2005 and the removal of a provision prohibiting assisted suicide in February last year, making euthanasia legal from 1 January 2016.

"Making euthanasia and assisted suicide part of the medical practice is not, as pro-euthanasia advocates claim, a small incremental change consistent with interventions we accept as ethical and legal such as patients' refusals of life-support treatment that allow them to die," she says and insists that allowing physicians to inflict death on their patients is different in kind, not just different in degree.

"For 2400 years consistent with the Hippocratic Oath, euthanasia has never been characterised as a medical treatment. It should not be now. Indeed if it is legalised, it should be kept out of medicine," she writes in a powerful chapter from her book entitled "Legalising Euthanasia: Evolution or Revolution."

Assisted suicide is assisted killing and has nothing to do with mercy renowned legal ethicist Margaret Somerville says

While the "quality of life" concept was initially developed to promote life through the argument that everyone had a right to the resources, especially health-care resources, needed to maintain an acceptable quality of life.

"Now the concept is being used to achieve the opposite outcome: that is, if a person's quality of life is very poor, they are better off dead or at least do not merit the expenditure of resources to keep them alive,"she writes.

Dr Somerville also takes issue with the way objective assessments are made about quality of life with countless studies and research showing that health-care professionals almost always assess patients' quality of life as lower than the patients' themselves.

"We grade a negative event such as going blind as much worse when we have not experienced it than when we do. Decision-making about hypothetical traumas is not the same as making decisions when we are faced with those traumas in real life," she says.

Margaret Somerville's upcoming book Bird on an Ethics Wire, Battles about Values in the Culture Wars

Throughout the book, Dr Somerville makes no secret of the fact she is deeply disturbed by the erosion of society's long-held values and moral views.

"Under ethical principles we must always ethically favour the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable and those who are unable to exercise decision-making themselves," she explains pointing out that in the case of same sex marriage, the meaning and nature of marriage  has been redefined and does not consider the rights of the child.

"The principle and sanction of marriage is not based on whether two adults love each other but is about recognising the inherently reproductive human relationship between a man and a woman and protecting and promoting the well being of the family that results," she says.

Among one of the most disturbing examples she cites in her book of the increasing erosion of centuries-old values occurred in April this year when Chinese scientists announced they had "edited" the genes of human embryos.

"That is intentionally changing the human genes we pass from generation to generation which is the outcome of billions of years on earth. We thought there was an international consensus that such alteration would be inherently wrong and must never be undertaken.  Now we are faced with possibilities of 'genetically enhancing' our children - for instance increasing their intelligence, or 'designing' their physical characteristics," she writes and asks: "What values and ethics must govern their procedures?

"This is just one of many examples among our most important collective decisions in coming decades and one we all need to discuss, talk about and decide."

Dr Margaret Somerville receiving one of her eight honoary doctorates at a ceremony in Ontario last year

"Bird on an Ethics Wire," the title of her new book was inspired by a cartoon she saw some years ago which featured a long row of birds perched on a telephone wire strung between two poles. All the birds faced forward bar one that faced the other way as the bird next to him asks: "Can't we talk about it?"

"I know how the bird facing the opposite way from the rest of the flock feels," Dr Somerville says admitting that she frequently finds herself in an analogous position in debates over ethics issues or expressing her opinion on values.

"I also know that if I were asked the question posed by the bird, my answer would always be: "Yes, we MUST talk about it."

Although raised a Catholic but rediscovering her faith three decades later, Dr Somerville says in the battle of the culture wars whether from a religious background, a human rights background, involved in humanism or an atheist all must contribute and be involved in asking questions that need to be asked and finding common ground for the common good.

"We have to decide on the values needed to maintain a world that reasonable people would want to live in and pass on to their descendants," she says.

In her new book, Dr Somerville examines the conflicting arguments between people who espouse "progressive values" and those who uphold "traditional" ones, and shows how words are often used as weapons.

Euthanasia is a complex issue that challenges the fundamental principles on which society is based

But she also emphasises the importance of hope and proposes that each of us should continually seek amazement, wonder and awe which she believes is oxygen of the human spirit and without which our spirit dies.

"On Ash Wednesday we say: 'remember man, thou art dust.' I translate that differently and as 'remember man, thou art stardust and to stardust you will return!" was deliberately chosen"It does not matter if one's values are founded in human rights or a religious perspective or humanism or atheism. All must be respected; all must be considered respectfully as we seek possible accommodations among them," she writes.

Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars by Margaret Somerville will be available through major Australian bookshops and online distributors from mid November.