Sunday, March 14, 2010

25th Annual Clark Family Medical Ethics Conference


Twenty-five years ago, Notre Dame alumnus Dr. Philip Clarke organized the first Notre Dame Medical Ethics conference on the University of Notre Dame campus. Ever since, the Notre Dame Medical Ethics conference, co-sponsored by the Center and the Alumni Association, has been a fixture on the university calendar, bringing together alumni and non-alumni physicians, theologians, hospital chaplains, lawyers, and clergy members in stimulating discussion about the difficult ethical issues that confront the practice of medicine. To commemorate the conference's 25th anniversary, we invited everyone to the Eternal City and were joined by approximately one hundred doctors, nurses, lawyers, priests, medical students, philosophers, and theologians. The conference was held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, located off the famous Piazza Navona.

Although the two-day conference itself took place on March 12-13th, most conference participants joined us in Rome for the entire week, taking the opportunity to see some of the city's magnificent sites. The week began with Mass at the Church of the Gesรน, con-celebrated by Fr. Kevin Flannery, S.J. and Msgr. Charles Brown, with a buffet reception afterwards which provided an opportunity for conference participants and their families to meet one another. Throughout the week, participants had the opportunity to sign up for “insider tours” led by friends of the Center. Fr. Kevin Flannery, S.J., Professor of Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Center's 2006-2007 Remick Fellow, led a small group on a walking tour of famous Jesuit sites. Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P., Associate Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the University of Fribourg and the Center's 2007-2008 Myser Fellow, took a group on a tour of some of Rome's famous Dominican sites. A lucky group of participants was able to attend a tour of the Vatican's Holy Offices, where the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is located. This tour was led by Msgr. Charles Brown, a Notre Dame alumnus and priest of the Archdiocese of New York who has worked for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1994. We were also fortunate to have Professor David Mayernik from Notre Dame's School of Architecture give a tour of S. Andrea al Quirinale and S. Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, two churches that are fruitful points of comparison between the work of Borromini and Bernini. Aside from these “insider” tours, participants had opportunities to join tours of St. Peter's Basilica and of the excavations below St. Peter's Basilica where the tomb of St. Peter is located, both of which were led by well-known art historian, Elizabeth Lev.

The conference itself began on the morning of Friday, March 12th with the annual J. Philip Clarke Family Lecture in Medical Ethics. The Clarke lecturer this year was Fr. Michael Sherwin, O.P., who delivered his lecture entitled “Truth, Freedom, and Medicine: Toward a Renewed Anthropology of Healing.” The remaining sessions of the conference dealt with topics that allowed for reflection on the differences between European and North American approaches to bioethics. The topic of the second session of the conference was “Age-Based Rationing of Health Care: European, North American, and Asian Perspectives.” This session featured a panel discussion focusing on the ethical treatment of the elderly, paying particular attention to the thorny issues of age-based rationing and organ transplantation in the elderly.

The following session, “Casting Off the Cloak of Conscience: Can Modern Medicine Afford a Physician's Conscience?” dealt with conscience clauses. This topic was of particular interest to conference participants because of the Obama administration's proposal to repeal the “conscience” rule put in place by President Bush in the waning days of his administration. The topic for the last session of the day was “Ethical Dilemmas at the Beginning of Life: European and North American Developments.” Conference participants addressed the tough issues at the beginning of life for very sick or premature infants and gained familiarity with different regional guidelines for neonatal resuscitation and the controversial Groningen Protocol. Bright and early on Saturday morning, conference participants were confronted with the difficult topic of “Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide: European and North American Developments.” During this session, there was a panel discussion about the laws concerning euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides adopted in different European countries and in individual states of the U.S.

Conference participants then divided into small discussion groups for the sixth session of the conference, “The Doctor-Patient Relationship and the Physician's Larger Responsibilities.” Among the questions raised in this session included: “How does a physician balance his duty to his patient with his duty to the public?” and “Is it appropriate for a physician to offer unsolicited advice to a stranger?” Participants also had the opportunity to discuss the effects of “medical tourism” on developing questions, the phenomenon whereby physicians visit a developing country to volunteer medical services or practice medicine while on vacation in a developing country.

At the next session, “Obama's Struggle for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: What Can the United States Learn from the European Experience?” there was a panel discussion about President Obama's health care proposal. Conference participants also learned about different European health care plans and discussed their feasibility in the United States. At the final session of the day, participants once again broke into small discussion groups to discuss “The Significance of National Borders for Access to Health Care.” Here they discussed such questions as: “What is a country's obligations to provide medical care for non-citizens?” and “How do European countries ensure that citizens of other countries do not abuse the European Health Insurance Card, which is supposed to ensure that vacationers receive emergency care?”

We were fortunate to bring with us to Rome a large group of distinguished medical ethicists from around the world to serve as our consultants in medical ethics. We were especially honored that Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P., Theologian of the Papal Household, found the time in his busy schedule to join us for multiple sessions of our conference.

Our week in Rome was filled with good company, stimulating conversation, heartfelt prayer, beautiful sites and wonders, great wine, and delicious food. To say the least, much fun was had by all. We enormously indebted to Karen Chan, graduate assistant to the CEC, who with the assistance of Ruth Tarwacki from Anthony Travel, planned and coordinated this splendid international event.