William E. May: I became interested in bioethics in 1968 while working as an editor for the Bruce Publishing Co in Milwaukee WI and when I completed my Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy at Marquette University. My wife was expecting our sixth child, Susan, born Oct. 5 1968. I had been reading Gordon Ratray Taylor’s fascinating book The Biological Timebomb, which described the “new reproductive techniques” being enveloped at that time all of which I found repugnant. My wife’s obstetrician Dr. John Brennan, was a good friend and pioneer in natural childbirth. I remember discussing Taylor’s book in the delivery room! From then on I followed developments in the field with great interest.
Lahl: How do you see the field today vs. when you first began writing/thinking on these matters?
May: First of all, there have been terrible developments, in my opinion. The new “reproductive techniques” have transformed procreation into reproduction. In procreation, human life was regarded as a gift properly begotten, not made, in the marital embrace of husband and wife and the child begotten was regarded as a person equal in dignity to his/her parents. Today, as a result of the new biology, the entity engendered by laboratory reproduction is too often considered a product inferior to its producers and subject to quality controls exercised during its development, to be discarded (terminated) if it does not measure up to standards. Moreover, development of these techniques has facilitated the sexual revolution, and today these techniques are used to provide children to live-in lovers, same sex couples, etc. These techniques have also led to the demand for human embryonic stem cells because these embryos while truly members of the human species, are not regarded as persons.
Those are the bad things that have come about. However, I think that today many intelligent people can see the path that all this takes toward a new kind of barbarism and are now seeking to reverse the movement toward distinguishing between living members of the human species who are persons and those who, like the unborn and “vegetative” are not.
Lahl: Are you amazed with what is taking place in the 21st century with issues like human cloning, designer babies, and the great stem cell debate?
May: I am not so amazed and one could see how all this developed from the revolution Taylor wrote about in the late 1960s. I am saddened by it.
Lahl: What are you encouraged by and hopeful about?
May: I have been teaching moral theology (Christian ethics) at a graduate level since 1971, admittedly to students the majority of whom are Catholic. In the 70s and first half of the 80s many of them repudiated Catholic teaching and I would add, the teaching of great Protestant ethicists like Paul Ramsey on the existence of moral absolutes, i.e. norms admitting of no exceptions, such as that forbidding the intentional killing of innocent human persons such as the unborn etc. Since the mid 80s the students I have had–and I have many fine young women and men– are not like that. The Catholics are much more open to the teaching of the Church–thanks, I think, to the work of John Paul II–and non-Catholic Christians are coming to have a deeper respect for Ramsey than, say, Joseph Fletcher.
Lahl: Do you have a sense of the broader global context of the bioethics agenda: who are the allies?
May: I think people like Leon Kass, Gilbert Meilaender, and Robert George. And others are doing a good job showing that the “bioethics establishment” in the US has as it were sold its soul to the highest bidder and that some tough questions must be honestly faced.
Lahl: How did you become involved in teaching bioethics?
May: Academia is a late vocation for me. For years, from 1954-68 I was editor of Catholic books for several publishers, principally the Bruce Publishing CO of Milwaukee for whom I worked 1955-68. After I married in 1957 and Marquette reinstalled a doctoral program in philosophy the Bruce’s were so good to me that they paid my tuition and allowed me to take time off for courses over a period of years. I finished my doctoral dissertation in 1968 when they went out of business. I then worked for Corpus Instrumentorum, a Catholic arm of World Publishing in Washington/NY until the end of 1970. As editor I worked on many philosophical and theological works, including fascinating books by Germain Grisez on contraception, abortion etc. When my job ended with Corpus I was about to go to work for the government when an opening in Christian ethics came up at the Catholic University, and I was fortunate enough to get the job. I quickly learned a lot, with my major mentors being Grisez, St. Thomas, and Paul Ramsey. I introduced a course on bioethics in 1973 and wrote a book on it in 1977, Human Existence, Medicine, and Ethics: Reflections on Human Life.
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