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Bioethics Coming to Elementary and High Schools?


Bioethicist Jacob M. Appel wants the bioethics movement to educate your children about the policy and personal conundrums that involve medical care and health public policy. He claims that “most of us give little thought” to issues that may arise, such as end-of-life care and prenatal screening. Then, when an issue does come up, people are unprepared to make wise and informed decisions.

From, “The Silent Crisis of Bioethics Illiteracy,” published in Scientific American:

Change will only occur when bioethics is broadly incorporated into school curricula [at an early age] and when our nation’s thought leaders begin to place emphasis on the importance of reflecting meaningfully in advance upon these issues…

Often merely recognizing such issues in advance is winning the greater part of the battle. Just as we teach calculus and poetry while recognizing that most students are unlikely to become mathematicians or bards, bioethics education offers a versatile skill set that can be applied to issues well outside the scientific arena. At present, bioethics is taught sporadically at various levels, but not with frequency, and even obtaining comprehensive data on its prevalence is daunting.

Is this really an appropriate field for children? Consider the issues with which bioethics grapples and whether elementary-, middle-, and high-school children have the maturity to grapple with them in a meaningful and deliberative way (not to mention, the acute potential that teachers will push their students in particular ideological directions):

  • Abortion, including because the baby is unwanted, of an undesirable sex, or diagnosed with a disability.
  • Killing the sick via assisted suicide/euthanasia.
  • Whether human life has moral value simply and merely because it is human or whether being a “person” based on cognitive abilities matters morally.
  • Advocacy that the moral value of some animals is greater than that of some humans based on respective cognitive capacities.
  • Whether embryonic stem cell research should be federally funded and human therapeutic or reproductive cloning allowed.
  • Transgender surgeries and blocking of puberty in children.
  • Whether to harvest the organs of patients deemed to be persistently unconscious or otherwise profoundly cognitively disabled.
  • Genetic engineering and the ethical propriety of making human/animal chimeras.
  • Healthcare rationing and refusing wanted life-sustaining treatment based on quality of life (“futile care”).
  • When and under what circumstances people should decide for themselves to cease life-sustaining treatment.

Extremely Contentious, Subjective

Even if some students are mature enough to grapple with these issues thoughtfully, the next problem is that bioethics is extremely contentious and wholly subjective. It’s not science, but focuses on questions of philosophy, morality, ideology, religion, etc.. Moreover, there is a dominant point-of-view among the most prominent voices in the field — e.g., those who teach at leading universities and would presumably be tasked with writing the educational texts. These perspectives would unquestionably often stand in opposition to the moral values taught young students by their parents.

Appel is typical of the genus (if you will). He has called for paying women who plan to abort to gestate longer in their pregnancy so that more dead fetuses will be available sufficiently developed to be harvested for organs and used in experiments. He advocates mandatory termination of care for patients who are diagnosed as persistently unconscious to save resources for what he considers more important uses. He has also supported assisted suicide for the mentally ill.

Not a Unique Perspective

Indeed, activists without a modifier like “Catholic” or “pro-life” before the term “bioethicist” are overwhelmingly very liberal politically and intensely secular in their approach. Most support an almost unlimited right to abortion, the legalization of assisted suicide, genetic engineering (once safe), and accept distinguishing between human beings and persons, that is, they deny universal human equality.

Some wish to repeal the dead donor rule that requires organ donors to be dead before their body parts are extracted — an idea that admittedly remains somewhat controversial in the field. Most mainstream bioethicists deny the sanctity of human life and many think that an animal with a greater cognitive capacity has greater value than a human being with lower cognition. Add in the sector’s general utilitarianish approach to health-care issues, such as supporting rationing, and the potential for propagandizing becomes clear.

Rank Proselytizing, Coming Soon

With such opinions, often passionately held, how long would it be before early bioethics education devolved into rank proselytizing? “But Wesley,” Appel might say, “the classes would be objective! Every side would be given equal and a respectful and accurate presentation.”

Sure. If you believe that, you must think current sex education curricula and high school classes in “social justice” present all sides of those issues dispassionately and without attempt to persuade the students to particular points of view and cultural perspectives.

I have a deal for Appel: In-depth courses in bioethics should not be taught before college — unless I get to write the textbooks! I promise to be objective and fairly present all sides. Honest!

Do you think he and his mainstream colleagues would approve of that deal?

Neither do I. And we shouldn’t go along with his idea for the very same reason.

Photo credit: cherylt23 via Pixabay.

Cross-posted at The Corner.