Fletcher, Joseph Francis, III

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Fletcher, Joseph Francis, III

(b. 10 April 1905 in Newark, New Jersey; d. 28 October 1991 in Charlottesville, Virginia), biomedical ethicist who influenced changes in teaching and textbooks dealing with abortion, euthanasia, genetic control, and other fundamental issues.

Fletcher was the older of two children of Joseph Francis Fletcher, II, a businessman, and Julia Davis, a homemaker. Fletcher’s mother became sole caretaker of her children when she and his father separated in 1914. Julia Fletcher moved her children from New Jersey to her former home in Fairmont, West Virginia, where young Fletcher particularly enjoyed baseball, swimming, canoeing, and acting in school plays. He revealed an enterprising spirit by undertaking an office job one summer at the Consolidated Coal Company, and the following summer by working as a trapper for another smaller coal mine. He finished his four-year high school in three years, graduating in 1921.

Fletcher’s experience with the hardships of coal miners “radicalized” him, as he later put it, by the age of fifteen. Gravitating to leftist literature, he took a special interest in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and the works of H. L. Mencken and Karl Marx. At age sixteen Fletcher entered West Virginia University at Morgantown. Before the year was out, he landed in jail for a night for publicly defending the United Mineworkers Union, which was legally prohibited.

Influenced by the rector of the Episcopal Church in Morgantown, Fletcher decided in his sophomore year to attend divinity school. Fletcher believed he could expand upon his social idealism, which he perceived to be closely linked to Christianity, at divinity school. He graduated from West Virginia in 1925, then entered the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in Connecticut, earning a bachelor of divinity degree in 1929. Meanwhile, on 5 September 1928 he married Forrest Hatfield; the couple had two children.

After pursuing graduate study in economic history at Yale University, he moved to London, where he studied part-time from 1930 to 1932 at the London School of Economics under the guidance of the writer R. H. Tawney and served as curate at St. Peter’s Church. During this period Fletcher developed a deep conviction of the necessity of fusing scholarly pursuits with activism, an approach taken from Marx, who wrote about the imperative of balancing “theory and practice.” It was by this principle that Fletcher lived and from which he constructed his most famous works.

In 1932, having received his doctorate of systematic theology from the University of London, Fletcher returned to the United States to teach at St. Mary’s Junior College in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also taught labor relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1935 he and his family moved to Cincinnati, where he was the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral from 1936 to 1940 and also the dean of the Graduate School of Applied Religion from 1936 to 1944. In keeping with his philosophy, he promoted the teaching of community involvement as well as pastoral care.

Fletcher also taught both labor history and the Bible at the University of Cincinnati. In 1944 he accepted a position as professor of pastoral theology and Christian ethics at the Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught until 1970. He remained forthright about his socialist leanings, which became increasingly dangerous for him with the advent of the Senator Joseph R. McCarthy era and the tensions leading up to the civil rights movement. Fletcher was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He survived, with his teaching post intact, the intense protest from his fellow teachers and superiors who felt that his views were too extreme for the time. He rejected efforts to silence those who defended communism, exclaiming: “Don’t outlaw them, outthink and outdo them.” During an assignment to teach labor history to organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union, he was cornered by segregationists on two separate occasions and badly beaten each time.

Gradually Fletcher became dissatisfied with the consequences of socialism and cultivated his interest in medicine and ethics. Fearless in the face of controversy, he immersed himself in the problems of euthanasia, contraception, artificial insemination, and sterilization in his 1954 work Morals and Medicine. Although Catholics had addressed these issues, Fletcher was the first Protestant theologian to focus on what was later to be termed biomedicai ethics. The conservative branches of Judaism and Christianity in particular repudiated Fletcher’s defense of each person’s moral prerogative to resolve these matters personally. Fletcher argued, however, not for the application of traditional rules of right and wrong to life-altering decisions, but for the consideration, first and foremost, of an individual’s well-being.

In 1966 Fletcher published his best-seller Situation Ethics, in which he declared that agape—that is, benevolent love and active concern for the good of another—is the “regulative principle” by which one can best decide how to act in a given situation. To make an ethical decision within the confines of legalism or by the abandonment of all principles in antinomianism is to encounter love merely incidentally or, more grievously, not at all.

Fletcher stressed the importance of acting on a case-by-case basis and applying principles with flexibility so as to produce practical benefits for people. Fletcher became estranged from Christian ethics, which he thought too encumbered by doctrine. In 1967 he announced that he was an “unbelieving theologian.”

In 1970 he took on a new role as the first professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. He wrote The Ethics of Genetic Control in 1974 and Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics in 1979. These books, however comprehensive and clear in his argument for utilitarianism, were a fragment of the 160 books and articles he wrote between 1930 and 1988. He worked well past the common age of retirement, and after the death of his first wife, the eighty-six-year-old Fletcher married Elizabeth Hobbs in the summer of 1991. He died of cardiovascular disease and his remains were cremated.

Possessed of a mischievous but personable spirit, Fletcher welcomed debate but rarely left opponents bitter. He motivated people to think about the difficult and emotionally charged ethical issues that affected everyone but had remained largely unaddressed. Fletcher influenced healthcare policy concerning in-vitro fertilization, a patient’s right to know the truth of his prognosis, the right to die, recombining DNA, and fetal research.

A collection of Fletcher’s personal papers is at The University of Virginia, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Kenneth Vaux, ed., Joseph Fletcher: Memoir of an Ex-Radical: Reminiscence and Reappraisal (1993), includes an autobiographical essay. See also James F. Childress, “Death of a Pioneer in Biomedicai Ethics,” Biolaw (Dec. 1991): U:2245-U:2247, and Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series 2 (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times (30 Oct. 1991).

Elizabeth Mckay

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