How Babies Went From Persons to Products: An Interview

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

Jennifer Lahl: How did you get involved in the field of bioethics?

William E. May:I became interested in bioethics in 1968 while working as an editor forthe Bruce Publishing Co in Milwaukee WI and when I completed my Ph.D.dissertation in philosophy at Marquette University. My wife wasexpecting our sixth child, Susan, born Oct. 5 1968. I had been readingGordon Ratray Taylor’s fascinating book The Biological Timebomb, whichdescribed the ‘new reproductive techniques’ being enveloped atthat time all of which I found repugnant. My wife’s obstetrician Dr.John Brennan, was a good friend and pioneer in natural childbirth. Iremember discussing Taylor’s book in the delivery room! From then on Ifollowed 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. Thenew ‘reproductive techniques’ have transformed procreation intoreproduction. In procreation, human life was regarded as a giftproperly begotten, not made, in the marital embrace of husband and wifeand the child begotten was regarded as a person equal in dignity tohis/her parents. Today, as a result of the new biology, the entityengendered by laboratory reproduction is too often considered a productinferior to its producers and subject to quality controls exercisedduring its development, to be discarded (terminated) if it does notmeasure up to standards. Moreover, development of these techniques hasfacilitated the sexual revolution, and today these techniques are usedto provide children to live-in lovers, same sex couples, etc. Thesetechniques have also led to the demand for human embryonic stem cellsbecause these embryos while truly members of the human species, are notregarded as persons.

Those are the bad things that have comeabout. However, I think that today many intelligent people can see thepath that all this takes toward a new kind of barbarism and are nowseeking to reverse the movement toward distinguishing between livingmembers of the human species who are persons and those who, likethe unborn and ‘vegetative’ are not.

Lahl: Are you amazed withwhat is taking place in the 21st century with issues like humancloning, designer babies, and the great stem cell debate?

May: I am not so amazedand one could see how all this developed from the revolution Taylorwrote 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 graduatelevel since 1971, admittedly to students the majority of whom areCatholic. In the 70s and first half of the 80s many of them repudiatedCatholic teaching and I would add, the teaching of great Protestantethicists like Paul Ramsey on the existence of moral absolutes, i.e.norms admitting of no exceptions, such as that forbidding theintentional killing of innocent human persons such as the unborn etc.Since the mid 80s the students I have had–and I have many fine youngwomen and men– are not like that. The Catholics are much more open tothe teaching of the Church–thanks, I think, to the work of John PaulII–and non-Catholic Christians are coming to have a deeper respect forRamsey 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 ‘bioethicsestablishment’ in the US has as it were sold its soul to the highestbidder 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 waseditor of Catholic books for several publishers, principally the BrucePublishing CO of Milwaukee for whom I worked 1955-68. After I marriedin 1957 and Marquette reinstalled a doctoral program in philosophy theBruce’s were so good to me that they paid my tuition and allowed me totake time off for courses over a period of years. I finished mydoctoral dissertation in 1968 when they went out of business. Ithen worked for Corpus Instrumentorum, a Catholic arm of WorldPublishing in Washington/NY until the end of 1970. As editor I workedon many philosophical and theological works, including fascinatingbooks by Germain Grisez on contraception, abortion etc. When my jobended with Corpus I was about to go to work for the government when anopening in Christian ethics came up at the Catholic University, and Iwas fortunate enough to get the job. I quickly learned a lot, with mymajor mentors being Grisez, St. Thomas, and Paul Ramsey. I introduced acourse 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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