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Review of Smith-Kaczor book “Life Issues, Medical Choices: Questions and Answers for Catholics”

smithkaczorbook.jpgThis helpful book could be called  “Catholic Bioethics for Everyone.” Dividing their material into an introduction and seven chapters subdivided into 57 questions, Smith and Kaczor offer a broad view of major life issues in easy-to-understand language. One of their major goals is to help fellow Catholics and others to understand the reasons behind Church teaching on crucial issues concerning human life; they also hope that their presentation of fundamental principles will guide readers in making their own choices on disputed questions on which the Church has not taken a firm stance (pp. xiii-xix).


They clearly articulate fundamental moral principles; in particular they show that certain kinds of human acts, such as intentionally killing innocent persons—including the unborn, the severely handicapped, those suffering from painful maladies—are always gravely immoral. They likewise explain clearly the role of conscience rightly understood: to make us aware of moral truths and to apply such truths to specific issues confronting us, and they also help readers understand the principle of double effect so relevant to choosing acts with both good and bad effects. (see chapter 1).

They apply these fundamental principles in the chapters to follow: beginning-of- life issues; reproductive technologies; contraception, sterilization, and natural family planning; end-of-life issues; and cooperation with evil. In discussing beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues they show that human bodily life as a great good intrinsic to the being of human persons, and in so doing they oppose those in our culture who distinguish between being a living human body and thus a member of the human species from “persons,” i.e., consciously experiencing subjects capable of relating meaningfully to other such subjects, and they show how this widely accepted view leads to the justification of abortion, infanticide, the “mercy killing” of many. Their treatment of the issue regarding care of persons in the so-called ‘vegetative state’ is excellent and integrates John Paul II’s teaching on this matter.

In their treatment of new reproductive technologies—in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, cloning—they provide an explanation and defense of the Church’s teaching that the only morally right way to generate human life is in and through the conjugal act; the basic problem with the “reproductive technologies” is that they transform “procreation” into “reproduction” and treat the baby as a “product” inferior to its producers and subject to quality controls.
They show clearly the moral difference between contraception, which is opposed both to the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, and natural family planning or, as I prefer to call it, “fertility awareness.” They likewise give very good reasons to show why married couples ought not engage in condomistic sex as a way of avoiding the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

The chapter devoted to issues involving cooperation with evil takes up many very difficult questions, such as the problem facing Catholic pharmacists in filling prescriptions for birth control pills or that facing parents and doctors in using vaccines obtained from aborted unborn children. Their advice on questions of this kind is sound and helpful.
A final chapter provides a helpful set of “Ten Commandments for Health Care Professionals and Patients.”
This is a very useful and well written book. My own major problem with it concerns their advice to readers regarding questions such as the “rescue” or “adoption” of “surplus” human embryos cryopreserved (frozen) in what Jerome Lejeune rightly called “concentration cans.” They suggest that readers are free to follow “probable opinions” of various theologians/philosophers. I think this smacks of an older legalistic approach. I always tell my students, “believe the Church, but never believe theologians or philosophers; rather look at the evidence and arguments they advance to determine which views are better and which theologians/philosophers have done their homework.”

William E. May
Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at
The Catholic University of America and
Senior Fellow, Culture of Life Foundation