Q&A with Mary Ann Glendon: What is the Good Life?

Harvard legal scholar, Mary Ann Glendon, has served as an adviser to President Bush and Pope John Paul II

You were appointed by President Bush to the President's Council on Bioethics. What is the most pressing bioethics issue facing our country today?What makes issues in this area so poignant is that they arise in connection with our good fortune to be living in an era when science and technology are doing wonders for our health and longevity, with promise of still more benefits to come. New developments are occurring with such speed, however, that they have outpaced reflection on their social, political and moral implications. Nor have our regulatory institutions been able to keep up with them. A further complication is that the scientific biomedical project has become deeply entangled with powerful economic interests. The most pressing issue, therefore, is whether we as a nation will make informed choices about ends and means, or whether we will allow our priorities to be set by scientific or business groups that may be indifferent to the general welfare.

Is it possible to ever reach any meaningful consensus on how to approach these issues?The conviction that Americans can and must reason together about such issues has guided the highly diverse President's Council from its inception. The remarkable reports issued by the council are, in my view, models of how people with differing religious and political views can collaborate constructively to clarify what is really at stake in controversies over embryonic stem cell research, cloning, new reproductive technologies, end of life care and so on. It is the hope of all of us who worked on these reports that they will help to raise the level of the national conversation.

You've been labeled a "pro-life feminist." How do you define feminism?There are so many "feminisms" - sameness feminism, difference feminism, gender feminism, independent feminism! When my students ask me whether I am a feminist, my answer is: Yes, if being a feminist means that I am especially concerned about a range of issues that disproportionately affect women, and that tend to be neglected if women themselves do not call attention to them. But no, if feminism has to be a total ideology.

In your book, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you examine the former first lady's role in securing human rights for all of the world's citizens. Why was it so important to establish a Universal Declaration of Human Rights?In the wake of two devastating world wars, the founding members of the UN thought it important to draw up a list of principles so basic that they could serve as standards for all nations to use in judging their own and each others' behavior. When I began to research the history of that document, I was surprised to see that Eleanor Roosevelt's many biographers had not treated her work as chair of the UN's first Human Rights Commission in any detail. Yet she herself regarded that as the most important achievement of her long and fruitful life. For instance, I was deeply impressed by how the members of the commission, under her leadership, were able to rise above political and cultural differences to produce a document that became the charter of the modern international human rights movement.

Would you agree that in recent years Roosevelt's work has been threatened by the erosion of human rights around the world - specifically in places like Darfur, Chechnya and the Middle East?There certainly is a dispiriting contrast between the UDHR's vision of human rights and the spectacle of continued dreadful human rights violations. That spectacle is so appalling that it can blind us to important human rights advances, such as the nonviolent end of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. It is also worth remembering that the principles in the UDHR continue to serve as rallying points for organizations that train the searchlight of publicity on abuses that would otherwise have been ignored. Today, hardly any flagrant human rights abuse escapes publicity, and most governments go to great lengths to avoid being labeled notorious rights violators.

With reports about atrocities committed against innocent civilians in Iraq, secret extraditions and prisoner abuses at Guantanamo Bay, has the United States slipped from its role as a guardian of international human rights?It is, in part, because the United States has held itself and others to a high standard that its past and current lapses are so widely noted and condemned. (I say "in part" because there are a good many opportunistic reasons for the external and internal critiques). When all is said and done, and without excusing our country's lapses, it is doubtful whether any other major power has paid greater attention to human rights while waging war than the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You have recently advocated for greater understanding about the role immigrants play in our country. What advice would you give to those decision makers who must decide how to handle the challenge of amnesty, citizenship and worker's rights for immigrants?At present, the debate is dominated on the one hand by immigration alarmists who tend to ignore our need to maintain an adequate ratio between active workers and pensioners, and on the other by immigration advocates who tend to ignore Americans' legitimate concerns about security and the rule of law. The prospects for any near-term solution seem dim. With the Mexican presidency contested, and congressional elections looming in the U.S., I do not expect to see much progress over the next few months. But, as in the case of bioethics, the chances of developing constructive approaches in the future could be improved by a fuller and better-informed public discussion now.

As president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, you gave an address to the 2004 International Youth Forum that addressed the worldwide concerns of university students. What did you learn about today's students?Much has been written about "Generation Y," but what I found most striking about that international meeting was the similarity in the way young men and women from all corners of the world expressed their personal hopes and fears. From the Philippines to Kenya, from Europe to North and South America, the students mainly spoke of hopes for three things: hope to find the right person to marry and found a family with, hope for work that is satisfying as well as rewarding, and the hope to be able to help to bring about positive changes in society. Their chief anxieties concerned their ability to realize these hopes, as they prepare to assume responsible positions in an era of turbulent changes wrought by globalization, conflict and widespread disruption of family life.

So, what can a Catholic university - especially one with a strong business presence - do to address these concerns and give hope to its students?Many students are disappointed by what they find, or more precisely, what they do not find, in institutions of higher learning. There is a heaping smorgasbord of courses and offerings, but little guidance on how one might organize a coherent course of study from among them. One is exposed to a bewildering variety of points of view, but receives little guidance on how one might make balanced and reliable judgments about their relative worth. This state of affairs presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Catholic universities. Some Catholic institutions have chosen to follow the crowd, submerging their distinctive identities in the sea of relativism. But some - and a strong business presence may aid in this - are seizing the opportunity to be different. They are daring to take up in the modern age the great perennial questions: "What is the good life, and how do I live it?"

Your colleague, Alan Dershowitz, once said of you that "If a woman could be made pope, she'd be my candidate." Have you thought about a career change? No, it's too much fun having Alan Dershowitz across the hall.

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