Ethics Week Viewpoints: 'Ethics, Morality and the Life Issue'

Author: Carol Elliott

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The 13th Annual Ethics Week, hosted by the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, explored “Ethics, Morality and the Life Issue” in a series of lectures from Feb. 8-11. The speakers discussed the abortion debate from various perspectives, including the Catholic faith, ethical leadership, practical considerations and legal implications.  

Feb. 8: The Most Reverend Kevin C. Rhoades, bishop of the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, presented “Ethics, Morality and Religion: Their Impact on the Abortion Issue.” Referencing a number of papal encyclicals, Bishop Rhoades discussed the error of viewing abortion as a right of individual freedom.

  • From an ethical and religious perspective, every human life is created in the image and likeness of God. The most fundamental human right is the right to life, which society is called upon to protect, particularly in regard to those who can’t protect themselves.
  • Totalitarianism arises out of the denial of descendant truth. It ultimately fails because it sets itself above all standards and does not recognize objective criterion of good and evil. A democracy without values turns itself into an open or thinly disguised totalitarian state.
  • Rights are not concessions by society or the state, but are inherent by virtue of the act of creation. The founding fathers recognized natural, moral law, and that civil law was to conform to this moral law.
  • Roe v. Wade has erroneously led people to believe that if an activity has been declared legal, it is somehow right. This line of reasoning suffers from a two-fold error: ethical relativism and a distorted notion of freedom.
  • Authentic freedom does not exist without the truth. Refusing to recognize the inviolability of human life amounts to contempt for human life and freedom.

Feb. 9: The Reverend John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, spoke about “The Ethics of Leadership.” His comments included the following points:

  • Living an ethical life is something you do. It is not simply a theory or a certain understanding. Ethics should be viewed as a practical activity that has a tactical dimension, and as such, requires practice, much like playing a sport or instrument.
  • Becoming an ethical leader requires paying attention to the small decisions made every day. A pattern of ethical decision making becomes a habit, and good habits become virtues. In turn, virtues add up to character.
  • Some decisions are not obvious in terms of being good or bad. In this circumstance, it is important to be able to articulate your guiding principles, and to step back and reflect how they should guide your actions. Once your decision is made, you should stand by it, even in the face of criticism.

During the following Q&A period, Jenkins discussed his decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak at the 2009 Notre Dame Commencement ceremony. He said the decision ultimately was about “respecting the office,” despite Obama’s pro-choice views. Jenkins also described the challenge for the University in the coming years of continuing its distinctive mission and identity, resisting the “gravitational pull to be like everyone else.” In part, this means recognizing a tension between maintaining Notre Dame’s character and faith traditions, and the advancements necessary to compete with other top universities.

Feb. 10: Bobby Williams, foundation director for the Women’s Care Center, addressed the topic, “Economic, Emotional and Other Essential Support Provided to a New Parent and Her Child.” Williams gave a brief history of his organization and spoke about their experience counseling women in crisis pregnancies.

  • The Women’s Care Center was founded in South Bend, Ind., in 1984 by a Notre Dame professor. It has grown to become the largest Catholic pregnancy help center in the nation, operating 16 locations in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. The centers had 56,873 client visits in 2008. 
  • Women Care Center counselors have found that providing a full range of services and offering nonjudgmental counseling are the essential factors when serving women in need. Williams reported that while women need service before and during pregnancy, many also seek continued assistance and counseling for up to 3 years after giving birth. The Women’s Care Center offers prenatal medical care; supplies including clothing, cribs and diapers; and parenting classes and educational referrals, among other services.
  • At the Women’s Care Center, they have found that in 97 percent of the cases when an expectant mother has the opportunity to view her developing baby on an ultrasound screen, she will choose to carry her baby to term.

Feb. 11: Ken Milani, Brian Levey and Jessica McManus, Mendoza College faculty members, presented a panel discussion, “The Long-Run, Legal and Lingering Implications of Abortion.” The wide-ranging discussion touched on the demographic characteristics of women who seek abortion, as well as the legal history of abortion in the United States.

  • To explain how laws regulating the practice of abortion have evolved and will continue to change, Professor Levey quoted former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said, “Roe is on a collision course with itself.”  He explained that medical advances have made the trimester distinctions in the Roe v. Wade decision increasingly problematic as a developing fetus can now survive outside of the mother’s womb as early as 20 weeks gestation.
  • Although acknowledging that it is challenging to gather objective statistics relating to U.S. women who have abortions, McManus pointed to trends that indicate that women are having abortions at older ages (mid- to late 20s, rather than as teens) and are citing financial and lifestyle concerns as the most important reason for their decision.
  • While surgical abortion rates have been falling steadily in recent years, the overall abortion rate may actually be rising because of the legalization and wide introduction of new chemical abortion pharmaceuticals, dubbed “morning after” pills, during the past decade.

About Ethics Week:

Sponsored by Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business, Ethics Week was established to encourage the discussion of ethical matters in undergraduate and graduate business classes at Notre Dame and to secure a foundation for future discussions inside and outside the classroom.

The annual series takes place in February, and brings in experts from a diverse array of industries to explore current ethics issues. Past speakers have included Digger Phelps, Chris Zorich and the Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy. The week was started to continue the legacy of John Houck, a Notre Dame management professor who authored numerous works on business ethics, including “Is the Good Corporation Dead?” Houck died in 1996.

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