This article appears in the August 2000 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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The Jubilee Symposium
Glasgow, May 2000


The Scottish Catholic Medical Association hosted the joint meeting between their association and the Guild of Catholic doctors. The symposium was held in The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in St Vincent Street, Glasgow.

The theme of the morning session was the "Genetic Revolution: Bright New Dawn or Brave New World?".

The talks given were:-
The primacy of the person by John Haldane, professor of moral philosophy from St Andrews.

He gave a very clear talk. He opened by offering some suggestions as to why Catholics were reluctant to be involved in a public policy. He stressed the importance of getting involved as there was a widening gap between the identified moral problems and the philosophical and ethical resources to deal with the problems. Despite the secular environment, he showed that there was a residue of ethical conscience where society recognised problems, but then argued that there were no objective ethical principles!

He briefly outlined the role of philosophy in analysing the issues and then raising metaphysical and ethical questions to guide practice. He pointed out that no philosopher will now argue that the foetus is not a human being. Among philosophers the debate is no longer about the nature of the foetus, but is about the relative rights of the foetus and the mother.

He briefly outlined the structure of ethical thinking. He argued that there were three levels:- 1) Normative ethics (what is right/wrong or good/bad). 2) Ethical theory (why is it right/wrong) and 3) Metaethical theory (what is it for something to be right/wrong eg is it a matter of objective fact or social convention?).

He showed that subjectivists do say that things are right and wrong, but argue that this is a feeling of sentiment rather than a matter of objective wrong.

He then explained that there were three forms of ethical theory.

  1. Motivation, or the ethics of intention and character. This was sometimes called "virtue ethics". This approach was dominant in Catholic thinking.
  2. Action, or ‘Rights theory’. This was based on the ethics of norms and requirements, ie a legal framework. This approach was characteristic of Jewish ethics which is based on the law.
  3. Outcome ethics - or the ethics of benefit and loss, or utilitarianism. This was the ethical thinking that was dominant in contemporary secular society.

He concluded his talk by arguing that we needed to shift to arguing what it means to be in the world. He quoted Roger Scruton who argued that there was no need to argue the rights and wrongs of abortion, as everyone knew the arguments, but move the debate into a new dimension. As an analogy he used the plot of Roger Scruton’s opera in which the minister was visited by the ghost of his aborted daughter. Such a presentation was far more powerful than clinical/logical arguments about the rights and wrongs.


New and future technologies: meeting the health needs of the next century by Dr Harry Burns, director of public health, Glasgow.

This was a fascinating talk with the speaker explaining the new science of genomics. Science now recognises that most diseases have both a genetic and an environmental component. The Human genome project with the mapping of the human genome will lead to a better understanding of disease, and the ability to develop specific treatments. The pharmaceutical companies are now moving into pharmacogenetics. After spending the opening half of his talk explaining the details of the new technology he then showed data which showed that the social environment is a dominant feature in the health of the population. He showed infant mortality figures in from the late 1800s which showed a massive gap between the wealthy and the poor. It was hard to believe that the infant mortality figures for Glasgow (as a whole) only became less than the infant mortality of the wealthy in the 1860s in the early 1990s.


Reproductive technology and the death of natural procreation by Peter Garrett, Information and Research Director of LIFE.

In his typical style, without using any notes, Peter Garratt gave a powerful talk, illustrated with a video clip from a futuristic Hollywood film, to show how society may insist that reproduction takes place in vitro with the genetic testing of early embryos to ensure a ‘healthy’ population. Apparently some in authority have seriously suggested that young boys should be sterilised - in order to reduce the teenage pregnancy rate - and then use stored sperm when they want to have children later in life!


The theme of the afternoon session was Withdrawing and withholding treatment from the incapable patient; the Good Samaritan re-examined.

The session opened with Fr Christopher Maxwell-Stewart, a moral theologian, Mapping the moral landscape.

Father Maxwell-Stewart opened his talk with the remark that there was no single private moral question. There was always a wider social implication to moral questions. He explained how the media and people in general were confusing conscience with feeling and how society now relies on democracy for ethical decision making. He reminded us all of the urgent need for spiritual wisdom.

During his talk he explained the term "intrinsically evil/disordered" as meaning that it goes against the positive evaluation of the meaning of a human life, especially in the realms of procreation etc. In explaining the terms he used the excellent analogy of a carpenter hammering in a screw with a chisel.

He went on to explain natural law, which referred to the value and meanings intrinsic to that nature. After discussing terms such as the moral object and moral subject he concluded his talk with the phrase "we become what we do."


Ethical decision making at the bedside by Dr Philip Howard, consultant physician and senior lecturer in medicine.

Dr Howard gave a detailed exposition of the moral problems facing doctors, and the inadequate way they had been dealt with by medical bodies, such as the BMA, and also the courts especially the Bland decision.


Legal developments since Bland by Mary Kearns, solicitor advocate in Edinburgh.

Doctor Kearns outlined the details of the Bland judgement and then went into detail of the fight which had taken place in the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Bill. Although the battle to get various clauses amended was unsuccessful, there is the possibility of taking action in the European Court. Unfortunately no legal action can be taken until the law is implemented, which won’t be for another year. In England we can learn from the experiences and arguments used in Scotland, as a similar bill will almost certainly be presented at Westminster.

The symposium concluded with Archbishop O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, in th eabsence of Cardinal Winning, celebrating Mass in a local Church.   The Scottish Catholic Medical Association are to be congratulated on their admirable hosting of the whole weekend on its first occasion in Scotland.

Dr Michael Jarmulowicz, Secretary of the Guild (now Master)

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