Book Review

Bioethics And The Human Goods
An Introduction To Natural Law Bioethics

Alfonso Gomez-Lobo with John Keown
Georgetown University Press
ISBN: 978-1626161634

Book coverProfessor John Keown, who is known to many of us, has edited here the last work of Professor Gomez-Lobo, whose previous works I have found both intelligent and readable. This excellent book is an ideal read for the busy clinician. It is just over a hundred pages and it begins with the basic principles before examining specific clinical issues. It shows us that a natural law perspective is an important means of understanding bioethics. As the author notes, this may be a minority view but majorities have been mistaken. What matters is the pursuit of truth and the author convinces us about the truth of natural law bioethics.

It is noted that the most popular option in bioethics is that of Beauchamp and Childress. The problem with this view is that it does not provide us with a theory of what is good. In contrast, a natural law perspective does.

The different options in contemporary bioethics are examined. The problem with utilitarianism, for example, is that it ignores the fact that certain acts are inherently unjust. In contrast, natural law theory asserts that to intentionally  harm someone is inherently unjust as it deprives that person of a good. The greater the importance of the good, the greater the magnitude of the harm done. What greater harm than to deprive a person intentionally of a right to life?

In the chapter on the beginning of life issues, it is noted that even some pro-abortion philosophers accept that abortion means the deliberate ending of human life. Some philosophers justify abortion by claiming that the rights of the child are outweighed by the rights of the mother because the foetus lacks self-awareness and other mental abilities. The author responds that in abortion, it is the good of life that is at stake. The good of which the mother is deprived if she continues with the pregnancy does not seem comparable to the loss of life. The doctrine of double effect is examined in this context. Depriving life when this is not intended is morally acceptable under certain specific circumstances.

The chapter on end of life issues is equally good. The author asks if it is right to deprive someone of life at his own request. Here we encounter the limits of autonomy. The physician has a duty to govern his actions according to the principles of beneficence and doing no intentional harm. Double effect reasoning allows for the shortening of life under certain circumstances. The principles underlying proportionate and disproportionate treatments are also examined.

The author hopes that this fine introduction to natural law bioethics will encourage readers to consult the growing literature on the subject. I am sure they will.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevathasan