Undergraduate Sorin Fellow Reflects on Center Medical Ethics Conference in Rome

Author: Stephen Freddoso

The following article was written by Center Sorin Fellow Lauren Saunee, who participated in the Center's Medical Ethics Conference in Rome over Spring Break. Lauren is a freshman majoring in science preprofessional studies with a minor in Catholic Social Teaching. She plans to attend medical school after her graduation. This piece originally appeared in the ND campus newspaper, the Irish Rover.

sorin_fellows_domenic_canonico_erin_stoyell_mulholland_lauren_saunee_and_grace_mcgurnThis spring break was extraordinary to say the least.

As a Sorin Fellow, I was afforded the opportunity to spend my spring break in Rome, Italy, with some of the world’s leading professionals in bioethics for the 30th annual Medical Ethics Conference hosted by the Center for Ethics and Culture.  Physicians, lawyers, scholars, and students gathered to discuss the most pressing issues in medical ethics today.  I feel as though I was a part of two different, equally incredible journeys in Rome: the inspiring conference and the experience of The Eternal City.

The conference itself featured 8 lectures on topics ranging from pharmacy sales to assisted reproduction.  After each lecture, the conference participants were split into small, rotating, groups to further discuss issues arising from the lecture, allowing professionals to explore and expand their knowledge and perspectives about ethical issues.  I attended each small group session and sat in awe of these professionals.  My mind was racing, trying to come up with something intellectual to say, but I could not help just sitting there in silence absorbing the wisdom of each group.

John Keown, a leading authority on the law and ethics of medicine, especially on end-of-life issues, delivered The Clarke Family Lecture.  Keown is the Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University and is the Remick Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture this year.  He analyzed the recent landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which held that there is a right to voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and concluded that the judgment was seriously flawed and set a very bad precedent.  The conference participants continued to reference Keown’s lecture throughout the week.

I have had the privilege of working with Keown at the Center for Ethics and Culture, and I was fascinated by the conviction with which he delivered his research during his lecture.  After the conference, Keown commented to the Rover that “the conference showcased the wonderful contribution that the Center for Ethics and Culture continues to make to serious, expert reflection on, and engagement with, some of the most important ethical issues of our time.”

Gilbert Meilaender, Professor Emeritus of Theology at Valparaiso University and an accomplished author in the field of bioethics, concluded the conference with an inspiring lecture on how to change society’s attitudes regarding assisted reproduction and adoption.  Meilaender explored how we can better present the argument for adoption over assisted reproduction to non-Catholics.  His lecture also focused on the way in which contemporary society views the role of parents and how the focus should be shifted from the biological role to the caregiving role.  Meilaender invoked the popular children’s book Are You My Mother? to illustrate his argument.

Meilaender’s lecture left a lasting impression on me, and I could not shake off lingering thoughts about it for days after the conference.  I had never before reflected so deeply on different views of parenthood and the moral implications involved.

Although most participants at the conference were Catholics, the lecturers addressed each ethical issue in the medical profession from a broader viewpoint in order to make their arguments more accessible to society at large.  The conference provided fruitful ground for debate and offered inspiration to those in attendance to share their experience with those outside the conference.

In between each session, participants gathered in the beautiful courtyard at the Notre Dame Global Gateway to enjoy espresso and other Italian delicacies and to share their thoughts with others about the lectures.  A strong sense of camaraderie was established among the participants as they shared perspectives from different disciplines such as philosophy, law, theology, and medicine.  A fresh cappuccino, cannolis, and fruitful discussion all within view of the Coliseum—for what more could one ask?

The conference schedule allowed for a great deal of free time to enjoy The Eternal City.  And so the second section of the trip ensued.  From exploring Saint Peter’s Square to meandering the streets around the Spanish Steps, I was amazed at the culture and beauty of Rome.  A trip to Rome would not be complete without indulging in gelato (on more than one occasion).  I made sure to do my research and scope out the top gelaterias in the area.  Needless to say, my Lenten sacrifice of giving up sweets was put on hold for a few days while I claimed the “traveler’s dispensation” card.

In addition to the delicious gelato, I enjoyed typical Italian fare throughout the day.  From picking up a prosciutto and mozzarella panini at the local “paninoteca” to enjoying Italian breakfast and cappuccinos each morning at the hotel, I ate my way through Rome.  Each night the other Center for Ethics and Culture employees and I dined at authentic Italian ristorantes.  We enjoyed some of the most traditional dishes from “cacio e pepe” to carbonara and tiramisu.

All the delicious food aside, one of the most powerful moments of the trip was when the conference participants attended the papal audience on the morning of March 11.  As I was within a few feet of Pope Francis as he rode by, my heart pounded.  My Catholic pride was undeniable at that moment, being a part of something so special at the Vatican.

Another notable part of the journey outside the conference was when I took the liberty of exploring by myself one afternoon.  I went for a run around Rome and ended up getting lost amid the monuments and churches.  The most memorable stop on my excursion was at a beautiful church tucked at the top of a great number of stairs on Capitoline Hill.  I felt so free and thankful for the opportunity to simply explore and wander.

While other spring breakers frequented beaches and visited home, I was blessed to experience a different culture and interact with leading physicians and ethicists.  Before this trip I had not appreciated that physicians approach medicine from vastly different ethical backgrounds, and I realized how much the Catholic ethical framework has to offer to contemporary problems in medical ethics.  Immersion in Italian culture also allowed me to reflect on diversity and to appreciate a different way of life.  “When in Rome” rang true for me on this journey.