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 CNS Story:

TORONTO-WORDS May-29-2008 (800 words) xxxi

Ethicist tells Catholic journalists in Toronto to be 'word warriors'

By Deborah Gyapong

Catholic News Service

TORONTO (CNS) -- Ethicist Margaret Somerville, one of Canada's leading intellectuals, challenged members of Catholic media to become "word warriors" and ethics agents to give people "the words they need to protect human dignity."

"Words matter" because human dignity is under "unprecedented threat," the founding director of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law told a gathering of about 400 Catholic journalists and communications professionals at the Catholic Media Convention in Toronto May 28. "A few words can turn the tide."

Somerville gave an example from a recent conference in Turkey, dealing with the ethics of selling human organs. Most participants shared a horror of organ trafficking and "organ tourism," but some were willing to consider the sale of organs because the organs are so scarce. Somerville said that at that conference she called the sale of human organs "the 21st century form of slavery." People used to sell the whole body, now they will sell bits and pieces of it, she said. Those words prompted spontaneous applause, she added.

People need to be given the words so they can express what they believe ethically, she said, adding, "Give them the words to speak their truth."

Somerville has been criticized for saying in relation to euthanasia that "you can't have doctors killing their patients." However, she said it has been proven that euthanasia laws do promote fear of the medical profession. She said when the Northern Territory state in Australia passed a euthanasia law aboriginal people stopped going to clinics or even having their children immunized for fear that doctors might kill them. The law was repealed in less than a year.

Somerville said she once suggested that if doctors should not be involved in euthanasia perhaps a specially trained group of lawyers could do it. The response was a horrified "You can't have lawyers killing people," she said. This shift in the language helped people grasp what was at stake in euthanasia -- killing people, not helping people die.

But Somerville warned against using overtly religious language.

"I'm sometimes deeply dismayed by language religious people use in the public square," she said. Not only is the language alienating; it makes it easier for opponents to dismiss the arguments as merely religious, she noted. A good secular or nonreligious argument can alter perspectives, she said.

Though people are interested in spiritual and religious topics, they "need to be surprised by new, non-cliched insights," she said.

She also urged respectful responses, even toward opponents who are disrespectful. She said she cringes when religious people attack their opponents.

"Good ethics require good facts," she said. Lies and deliberate omissions are never ethically acceptable. Studies show people trust the media less than they trust government or business, so Somerville urged the building of trust.

Members of the media must ask themselves, "Who are we trying to persuade?" she said. Even though Catholic media professionals appeal to a Catholic audience, those consumers also need to be equipped with good nonreligious arguments. How information is framed determines how it is received, she said.

Somerville advocated the development of a language to convey the "secular sacred," the notion that even without religion "some things are still sacred." She spoke of the need to work against "depersonalization," because it leads to dehumanization. For example, abortion has become normalized because of the depersonalization of the fetus.

Canada has no law restricting abortion at any stage of pregnancy, but a member's bill -- the Unborn Victims of Crime Act -- now before the Canadian Parliament faces massive opposition because it brings back the notion of the fetus as an unborn child, she said. This bill would make it a separate offense to injure or kill an unborn child while committing a violent crime against the mother.

It has become easy to make the case for euthanasia and difficult to make the case against it, she said, because of the influence of television and the plight of individuals who seek assisted suicide. It is much harder to show the damage euthanasia will do to collective values and the common good, she said.

Somerville stressed the need for a shared ethics, though finding this is a difficult task in a pluralistic society. She advocated looking for common ground, even though the extremes make better news stories. She also warned against both religious and neoatheist fundamentalism. A shared ethics must cross divides between secular and religious; science and religion; and between religions. It must be realistic and have realizable goals, she said.

She warned against moral relativism and the silencing tactics of political correctness. She noted that conservatives can be open and liberals close minded, contrary to common stereotypes. She said there is a danger of censorship from those with ultraliberal values.


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