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Topic: Eikon

An Interview with Carter Snead on the Body and Bioethics

June 8, 2021

Editor’s note: The following interview appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

Carter Snead is Director of de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, Professor of Law, and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.

1. What led you to write a book focusing on the “case for the body” as a distinct mode of argument?

I began my career in public bioethics as General Counsel to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics in 2002, under the directorship of the extraordinary Dr. Leon R. Kass. From the beginning I was struck by how the law so frequently fails to protect the weakest and most vulnerable. After studying the matter closely, I came to the view that the problem was at the root of the law’s assumptions about human identity and flourishing. All law exists to protect and promote the flourishing of persons. Accordingly, it must be grounded in baseline assumptions about who and what persons are that are true to lived reality. If it gets that essential question wrong, then the entire edifice of the law will be fatally flawed. In my book I examine these underlying “anthropological” assumptions in the law of abortion, assisted reproduction, and end of life decision-making, and find that the law and policy in this domain fail to take seriously our individual and shared lives as embodied beings, with all the challenges and gifts that entails. The legal landscape is, to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase, “forgetful of the body.” To repair the law, we must remember the body, and what it means for our identity and our obligations to one another.

2. Your arguments against expressive individualism were powerful. But that raises the question of a viable alternative. What do you see as the pathway for alternative public bioethics?

I argue that we should build a public bioethics that is genuinely responsive to the needs of embodied human life. As fragile, corruptible bodies in time, human beings are vulnerable, dependent, and subject to natural limits. Thus, to survive and flourish we need what MacIntyre calls “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving” composed of people willing to make the good of others their own good, without seeking anything in return. In other words, by virtue of our embodiment, we are made for love and friendship. To build and sustain these networks we must practice the virtues of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving, namely, just generosity, hospitality, misericordia (accompanying others in their suffering), gratitude, humility, openness to the unbidden, solidarity, respect for intrinsic equal dignity of all human beings, and truthfulness. We should make law and policy designed to support and strengthen these networks, and we can measure the success of law and policy to the extent that it achieves these goals.

3. You are a Catholic, but your book is not reliant upon Catholic teaching for its arguments (though neither are they inconsistent with Catholic teaching). Can you talk a little bit about the strategy of why you framed your arguments the way you did?

I chose to make an argument grounded in the universal experience of life as a being composed of the dynamic unity of body and mind. Regardless of one’s beliefs or faith tradition, I think he or she can identify with the premises of this framing. Though, as you say, the claims of the book are consistent with the normative claims of Christian teaching about human identity and flourishing.

4. Why should a non-Christian accept your arguments about the nature of the body and public bioethics?

The claims of the book are a proposal, made in the spirit of friendship, to all readers of good will. I think that all readers can agree with the baseline premises about the gifts and challenges of embodied human life, and can identify with the claims made about who we are, and what we owe to one another. None of it depends on accepting or affirming a particular faith tradition.

5. You talk frequently about an “openness to the unbidden,” which I found to be profound. Can you explain for our audience what you mean by this idea and how central it is to your overall thesis?

Theologian William May (of the President’s Council on Bioethics) used this expression a lot, and I found it arresting. It relates to the gratitude for the giftedness of life and the humility in recognizing that we did not create ourselves, don’t deserve what we have, and that gifts are not distributed equally throughout the human family. These realizations should incline one to be open to what comes, to be tolerant of imperfection, and to work to share what one has with those who have less. But the concept has special application in the context of parenthood and bioethics. Nowhere is openness to the unbidden more important than in regards to one’s children. As Leon Kass says, “a child is a mysterious stranger to be welcomed and loved unconditionally.” A child is a gift. Not a project or a vessel for one’s own aspirations. The fitting response to a child is gratitude and unconditional love. Not rational mastery, manipulation, or worse. To make matters concrete, the current American law concerning abortion and assisted reproduction allow parents to eliminate children in the womb or in the petri dish because they fail to meet pre-conceived standards, including for sex selection and selection for children free of disabilities. This is a grave and shameful failure of the law and indulges a vision of human identity, flourishing, and parenthood that is, I argue, profoundly inhumane and unjust.

6. How has your book been received by the secular academy?

I have been very grateful for the positive reaction to date.

7. Were there any other issues you wanted to highlight in your book that time and space prevented? If you had that time and space, what else would you have addressed as an urgent matter in bioethics?

Given more space it would be interesting to explore more concretely what types of laws and policies genuinely promote human flourishing in light of the complexity of life as embodied beings in time.

8. What writing projects are you working on next?

I’ve just begun work on a book that will explore (in light of “the anthropology of embodiment” sketched out in my previous book) how best to think about the so-called “boundary” question of who counts as a member of the human family in light of recent developments involving the creation of (i) human-animal chimeras and hybrids; (ii) human beings made by cloning or “synthetic human embryos with embryo-like features” (SHEEFs); and (iii) human cerebral organoids and related entities.

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