Letter: The Pope ,morality and the frontiers of life and death

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From Mr Nicholas Coote

Sir: The Archbishop of York's general support ("The meaning of life - and death", 20 April) for the Pope's moral leadership in his recent encyclical on life is most welcome. As Dr Habgood points out, protection of human life, especially in its weakest forms, is both a Christian imperative and the essential moral foundation for civilised society. However, he has reservations that seem to arise from a misreading of the text.

First, Dr Habgood suggests that important moral differences between contraception, abortion, embryo research, euthanasia and capital punishment are overlooked. On the contrary, the Pope does distinguish between these, and he explicitly distinguishes between the nature and moral gravity of contraception and abortion.

Dr Habgood also questions whether the Pope takes adequate account of the findings of modern biology, and in particular whether the assertion that human life begins at conception contradicts the fundamental biological premise of "gradualism". In fact, the Pope relies on modern biological knowledge as providing a strong indication that from fertilisation onwards there is an individual entity with a distinct genetic life programme.

It is not true that the Pope's argument depends on an equivocal use of the word "human". It is, in fact, on the basis of the principle of "gradualism" that the Pope argues that, from conception, an individual of the human species, as a dynamically ordered organism, cannot easily be regarded as anything other than a person beginning to develop towards full human maturity.

Finally, with regard to euthanasia, Dr Habgood claims that the encyclical does not mention transplant surgery or the persistent vegetative state (PVS). Organ transplants are mentioned in two passages, one of which refers to the controversial subject of adequate criteria of death. Although the Pope does not mention PVS, his distinction between "disproportionate" medical treatment and normal care is obviously relevant. In England and Wales, Catholic and Anglican bishops in their joint submission to the House of Lords agreed that decisions about treating dying patients should be guided by the principle that a pattern of care should never be adopted with the intention, purpose or aim of terminating the life or bringing about the death of a patient (June 1993).

Yours faithfully,

NICHOLAS COOTE

Assistant General Secretary

Catholic Bishop's Conference of England and Wales

London, SW1

21 April

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