By Msgr. Emmanuel Agius
The ethical issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic on the international scene clearly indicate that bioethical issues have no national or regional boundaries. Indeed, bioethical issues and concerns have become global and planetary!
All countries around the world have faced common challenges of how to safeguard public health; develop bioethical guidelines to assist health care professionals, administrators and public authorities in their thorny decision-making process in a context of scarce resources; and to foster international cooperation in biotechnological research to speed up the process of an effective and safe vaccine to curb the pandemic.
As Pope Francis stated during his blessing from the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica to an empty square, the “tempest” of the pandemic has put everybody around the globe “in the same boat.”
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor of “global village” to depict the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of the world community assumes a more poignant dimension with Pope Francis’ image.
The ship of humanity, in the open sea after a strong storm that has damaged all the navigation instruments, drifts toward the shallows and is about to sink! The survivors of the wreck in the lifeboats have learned to live together, to cooperate with each other and not to fight each other in order to reach the land safe and sound.
Globalization has introduced a new landscape in bioethics. Now it is no longer a collection of countries, regions or continents that engage in bioethical concerns and discourse. Bioethics has become a unified global or planetary field.
Examples of this globalized field include: the right to health resources in poor countries, clinical trials conducted by pharmaceutical companies in wealthy countries among vulnerable groups in developing nations, global justice and equity in the sharing of benefits resulting from scientific research, the devastating global impact of climate change, the reduction of poverty, the elimination of diseases and the containment of child mortality, bio-piracy, international research cooperation in genome editing and stem cell therapy, medical tourism and organ trafficking.
Some claim that a global set of principles is now needed to address the cross-border and cross-cultural bioethical issues. The focus of mainstream bioethics is limited to the “Georgetown mantra,” namely autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice.
No matter how important these four principles are, they are insufficient to address global issues in bioethics. What is needed is an in-depth analysis of the global bioethical issues at stake and an integral ethical approach that is unified, comprehensive and worldwide in scope.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si'” is a wake-up alarm about the globalization of the “technocratic paradigm” and development that fails to see the larger picture.
What makes this encyclical particularly proactive and innovative is the pope’s bold appeal for action before it is too late and his embrace of moral reasoning that befits an adequate approach to global bioethical issues.
The broad ethical vision embraced by “Laudato Si'” is a catalyst in the critical analysis and assessment of the far-reaching impact of biotechnology on humanity as a whole and the ecosystem.
Since “our common home” belongs to humanity, an ethical paradigm shift is required to navigate today’s technological power to serve humanity as a whole rather than the market.
Fraternity, justice and solidarity with all humanity and the ecosystem are decisive in restraining individualism, human greed, selfishness, arrogance and manipulation, which are the blind forces ingrained in today’s dominant technological paradigm.
Pope Francis warns that “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.”
He points out that “when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one.”
Let us hope that the world community continues to benefit from new scientific and biotechnological advancements without becoming oblivious of the principle that the “whole is greater than the parts.”
This broader vision renders global bioethics more just and equitable toward those who are vulnerable, disadvantaged and poor.
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Msgr. Emmanuel Agius serves on the theology faculty of the University of Malta and is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.