Professor Mary Ann Glendon is the recipient of the 2012 Paul Ramsey Award for Excellence in Bioethics. Prof. Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002 to 2005. The award was presented at The Center for Bioethics and Culture’s 9th Annual Paul Ramsey Award Dinner on March 23, 2012, at the Lakeside Olympic Club in San Francisco, CA.
Prof. Glendon’s Acceptance Speech: Video
Prof. Glendon’s Acceptance Speech: Text
I am deeply honored by the award you have chosen to confer on me this evening and very regretful that I am not able to accept it in person.
At the same time, I am humbled to find myself in the company of persons I admire so much as your previous honorees. Unlike most of them, I never knew Paul Ramsey personally. Rather, I first encountered his vision and his work through the Ramsey Colloquia, a series of seminars where the late Richard John Neuhaus presided and where Leon Kass and Gil Meilander were among the most brilliant participants. As a result, I am keenly aware that in honoring me this evening you are also celebrating the way that Ramsey’s inspiration and insights live on through those whose lives he touched.
My path crossed again with those of Leon Kass and Gil Meilander when we served together on the President’s Bioethics Council under Kass’s chairmanship. What a privilege it was to be a part of that great work! My eyes were opened and my horizons expanded in ways I could never have imagined.
My introduction to the world of bioethics had begun many years earlier, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade caused me to become alarmed about the threat to human life and dignity posed by the growing normalization of abortion. I remember that many people scoffed when some of us predicted that disrespect for the lives of the unborn would lead someday to treating disabled newborns and the frail elderly as disposable too. They said that would never happen.
Today, however, as we all know, the legalization of various forms of assisted suicide is no longer a remote possibility. With health care and social welfare systems under increasing strain, the pressures to turn a blind eye to euthanasia can only be expected to build.
Meanwhile, advances in bio-medicine are occurring with such speed that they have outpaced reflection on their moral implications. Experiments that involve the destruction of human embryos inevitably take us further along the path of treating some human lives as less worthy than others. They foster a mentality that accepts treating the lives of the weak as means to the ends of the strong.
As Paul Ramsey understood, the way a society handles such challenges has a transformative effect on the moral texture of our culture. Nations and persons, at any given moment, are continually being shaped, for better or worse, by our actions and decisions. Each time we make policy on abortion, euthanasia, and human experimentation, we are either helping to build a civilization that promotes human flourishing, or we are making the world more dangerous, especially for the weakest and most vulnerable.
If what Leon Kass has called “the party of dignity” is to make headway in confronting those challenges, we need to move forward simultaneously on three fronts—legal, political, and cultural. Even though I am a lawyer, I have no doubt that the most important of these fronts is cultural. Neither legal nor political advances can be sustained without winning the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. And, make no mistake, that task has become progressively harder. For when protections for life and dignity disappear one by one, even decent men and women get used to their absence. Minds close and hearts harden.
That’s why we need prophetic truth-tellers like Paul Ramsey, Leon Kass, and Gil Meilander. And that’s why the work of the Center for Bioethics and Culture is so important. You are making the case for morally responsible science, using all the resources of modern media. And you are making that case as it must be made in our pluralistic society—with reasons that are intelligible to all men and women of good will, to persons of all faiths, and to persons of no faith.
Sometimes it seems as though we are not making much progress, or even falling behind. But we all know that that we are in it for the long run. And we can all hope that by playing our part—with Ramsey, his students, and those whose lives they have touched—we are helping to keep alive the flame of truth about the human person. No one, of course, knows that better than those of you who are here this evening to support the work of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. For allowing me to have a share in this evening’s celebration, and for the great work you are doing, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.