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New Brisbane bioethics director tackling the big questions

Dr David Kirchhoffer

Dr David Kirchhoffer: “You claim that everybody has dignity but you see a society that continues to have radical injustice, so how do we experience that dignity?”

LIFE, love and learning have moved Dr David Kirchhoffer from one side of the world to the other.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, David is now settled in Brisbane with his wife, raising their two young sons.

He’s followed the path of academia out of Africa to Belgium and then to Australia.

On the way, he’s completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Witwatersrand and Master of Philosophy at St Augustine College of South Africa, in Johannesburg; and then masters degrees in Theological Studies and Advanced Studies, and doctorate in Sacred Theology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

It’s all laid the groundwork for his latest appointment as director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre, which was established by the Brisbane archdiocese in 1981 and has recently become a partnership between the archdioccese and Australian Catholic University.

The centre is now based at ACU’s McAuley Campus in Banyo, where Dr Kirchhoffer is a member of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy.

After leaving South Africa 14 years ago, David lived in Belgium for six years, completing his doctorate in Leuven.

“I spent more or less a year living in Stuttgart (Germany, where his wife was working) as well whilst I was working as a post-doctoral fellow for the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law in Leuven, and then came here (to Brisbane),” he said.

David and his wife moved to Brisbane in 2011, and their sons were born here.

“Australia was a tough call. I didn’t really want to come to Australia,” he said, as he recalls those days of searching for a job to suit his qualification as a Doctor of Sacred Theology.

“There were various possibilities.

“We were looking in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany …”

Various interactions with ACU academics during his time in Leuven, however, persuaded him to consider Australia as an option.

“And I saw this job (at ACU in Brisbane) come up,” he said.

“In 2008, I’d been to Australia for the first time – I came to a conference that coincided with World Youth Day.

“I travelled around, and came to this campus.

“And I stood up on the hill over there in front of the main building, and my friend who was travelling with me said ‘Imagine, you could work here one day’.

“So when the job came up in Brisbane – I’d spent most of my time in Sydney and I quite liked Sydney for various reasons and I thought, ‘Oh, well, it’s not Sydney but we’ll give it a go. I’ll apply and see what happens’.

“We probably had more in mind coming for two, maybe three years, and then using this as a base to then get back into Europe, possibly.

“But that’s history … Brisbane was a strange choice but I’ve come to like Brisbane very much and I really don’t know where else I’d like to go, apart from stay here … We’re quite comfortable.”

David became interested in theology and philosophy and then bioethics from a young age.

“I’d come out of my bachelor degree and I’d studied zoology and psychology, and I’d been raised Catholic, so I had these understandings of the human person as a biological being and as a psychological being and I became interested in the spiritual dimensions of the human being, and in particular this notion of human dignity,” he said.

“The claim of dignity is a big thing in South Africa because it’s very much part of the new Constitution that was developed as the basis of South Africa leading to the new elections in 1994 (at the end of the fight against apartheid).

“And it was in that context that I raised for myself these questions about what does (dignity) even mean?

“You claim that everybody has dignity but you see a society that continues to have radical injustice, so how do we experience that dignity?

“One of the first courses that I did at St Augustine College was about the dignity of the human person.

“And so it was really questions around understanding the human person, in that sense, that drove my real interest in pursuing more theological ethics.

“I became interested obviously in theology as well because our understanding of God has implications for our understanding of human beings.”

David’s doctorate was about dignity and he said his work in bioethics had evolved because of his work around the language of “dignity”.

“One of the places where (“dignity” language) is most evident is in bioethical issues, and indeed my first job after my doctorate was at the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law in Leuven, and I worked on three projects there associated with questions of how the concept of dignity can be applied in new medical technologies, clinical trials and biobanks,” he said.

“If I want to get ethics approval for some research and you’re a competent adult, I can say, ‘Do you approve?’ and you say, ‘Yes’, and it’s done.

“That’s become the primary paradigm for most research. It’s true, of course, that there is more to the due diligence process than this, but because of the dominance of ideas like informed consent and respect for autonomy, it can often become a sort of a box-ticking exercise that one goes through. ‘Did you get informed consent?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Fine, carry on’.

“That’s dominant also in medicine but I’m interested (more) in the research dimension, so research involving human beings, because there are complicated differences.

“… There are various populations where (gaining consent is) not possible for various reasons.”

There’s the question of dealing with people with diminished capacity to give consent such as drug addicts and people with dementia.

“They are populations that you want to be able to do clinical trials with … but you can only do that if you can get consent, and consent in these cases is not really meaningful because there’s a question about their competency to be able to consent,” David said.

“Are they genuinely autonomous in that sense?

“And then you have those who you would raise questions about their autonomy because of, not a lack of or diminished consent, but a compromised autonomy.

“So, if you think about populations in prisons, asylum seekers …

“You can imagine someone in an asylum-seeker camp somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and a medical researcher goes in and says, ‘I want to find out about how well you’re doing here … Do you consent?’

“What are they going to say? Of course they’re going to say yes.

“There are problems in the sense (that) consent and therefore autonomy are compromised precisely because of power imbalances that arise from social inequality in certain circumstances.”

David said he was particularly interested in those areas for several reasons – “one being that these are vulnerable populations for whom we need to do research in order to be able to actually help them”.

Australia’s ageing population provided one such point of vulnerability.

“On the radio today was news about the number of suicides in aged care, and yet the people who are most in need here for treatment (may not) be helped because (if you can’t gain proper consent) you can’t do the research to be able to find the treatments that’ll work,” David said.

“That’s one of the biggest reasons why you need to do this kind of work.”

Asked if his work in bioethics expanded or confounded his relationship with God, David said he generally found faith confounding.

“I like to think in terms of what (Jesuit theologian) Avery Dulles once said in talking about doubt,” he said.

“He talks about the virtue of doubt, and he talks about how he would even go so far to say that doubt is a necessary pre-condition for faith.

“I think of my relationship in that way, basically one that is always a doubtful one, because I think it’s through doubt, as Dulles would argue, it’s through doubt that you ask these deeper questions.

“The person who’s too sure, the person who thinks they know all the answers and has found the solution, that can be a dangerous person.

“I think it’s that doubt that brings with it a humility, and it’s that humility that enables you to engage meaningfully in dialogue in relationships with other people in ways that are not moralistic and confrontational but are meaningful, and you will journey together towards justice and peace and joy, which is what the reign of God’s supposed to be about.

“And I don’t see how you achieve justice, peace and joy by being moralistic and condemning people. It just doesn’t work.

“So, in that sense, I think the confounding part helps one to stay in that humble area that means one’s not too quick to judge others.”

The Queensland Bioethics Centre will be officially launched at ACU on May 25 but David is already in contact with stakeholders in health care around the state, including various hospitals who support the work of the QBC.

Written by: Peter Bugden
Catholic Church Insurance

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