What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

The Harold T. Shapiro Lecture on Ethics, Science, and Technology

April 8, 2021
poster for the "What it Means to be Human" lecture by O. Carter Snead with yellow holographic images of male and female bodies

O. Carter Snead, Professor of Law; Director, de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture; Concurrent Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame, and Robert P. GeorgeMcCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, Princeton University

A conversation on What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics by O. Carter Snead (Harvard University Press, 2020). 

The natural limits of the human body make us vulnerable and therefore dependent, throughout our lives, on others. Yet American law and policy disregard these stubborn facts, with statutes and judicial decisions that presume people to be autonomous, defined by their capacity to choose. As legal scholar O. Carter Snead points out, this individualistic ideology captures important truths about human freedom, but it also means that we have no obligations to each other unless we actively, voluntarily embrace them. Under such circumstances, the neediest must rely on charitable care. When it is not forthcoming, law and policy cannot adequately respond.

What It Means to Be Human makes the case for a new paradigm, one that better represents the gifts and challenges of being human. Inspired by the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Snead proposes a vision of human identity and flourishing that supports those who are profoundly vulnerable and dependent—children, the disabled, and the elderly. To show how such a vision would affect law and policy, he addresses three complex issues in bioethics: abortion, assisted reproductive technology, and end-of-life decisions. Avoiding typical dichotomies of conservative-versus-liberal and secular-versus-religious, Snead recasts debates over these issues and situates them within his framework of embodiment and dependence. He concludes that, if the law is built on premises that reflect the fully lived reality of life, it will provide support for the vulnerable, including the unborn, mothers, families, and those nearing the end of their lives. In this way, he argues, policy can ensure that people have the care they need in order to thrive.

In this provocative and consequential book, Snead rethinks how the law represents human experiences so that it might govern more wisely, justly, and humanely.

O. Carter Snead is Professor of Law, Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. His research explores issues relating to neuroethics, enhancement, human embryo research, assisted reproduction, abortion, and end-of-life decision-making. Prior to joining the law faculty at Notre Dame, he served as general counsel to The President’s Council on Bioethics (Chaired by Dr. Leon R. Kass), where he was the primary drafter of the 2004 report, “Reproduction and Responsibility: The Regulation of New Biotechnologies.” In addition to his scholarship and teaching, he has provided advice on the legal and public policy dimensions of bioethical questions to officials in all three branches of the U.S. government, and in several intergovernmental fora. He is the author of What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics (Harvard University Press, October 2020), which the Wall Street Journal selected as one of the "Top Ten Books of 2020.” His scholarly works appear in such publications as the New York University Law Review, the Harvard Law Review Forum, the Vanderbilt Law ReviewConstitutional CommentaryQuaderni Costituzionali (Italy’s premier journal of constitutional law), the Yale Journal of Health PolicyLaw and Ethics, the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, and Political Science Quarterly. He is also the editor of two book series for the University of Notre Dame Press: "Catholic Ideas for a Secular World" and "Notre Dame Studies in Bioethics and Medical Ethics." He received his J.D., magna cum laude, from Georgetown University, where he was elected to the Order of the Coif, and his B.A. from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He clerked for Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

Robert P. George holds Princeton University's McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He has served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and before that on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He has also served as the U.S. member of UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). He is a former Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award. A graduate of Swarthmore College, he holds M.T.S. and J.D. degrees from Harvard University and the degrees of D.Phil., B.C.L., D.C.L., and D.Litt. from Oxford University.

Video:

What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics

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Zoom Webinar

Cosponsored by:

  • The Princeton School of Public and International Affairs