“The godfather of medical ethics”

Wybo Dondorp inspired by Harry Kuitert


Harry Kuitert (1924) was a well-known person in the world of theology in the Netherlands during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies. He was, to put it mildly, a controversial man. He inspired Maastricht ethicist Wybo Dondorp as a student.

In celebration of Kuitert’s ninetieth birthday, the VU university Amsterdam arranged a room where he could present his latest book: Kerk als constructiefout. De overlevering overleeft het wel (The Church as a design error. Tradition will survive it.). Senior lecturer Wybo Dondorp was present. “There was a great deal of interest and the room proved too small.”
Harry Kuitert is a Dutch Reformed theologian and ethicist. At the beginning of the nineteen-fifties, he was a pastor in the village of Scharendijke, Zeeland. Later, he became a student pastor in Amsterdam, completed a PhD and worked as a professor at the VU University Amsterdam until 1989. Dondorp was one of his students, and even his last PhD student.
“I am from a family of pastors. My grandfather had seven children: five boys and two girls. The boys all became pastors. The girls married pastors.” Even though Dondorp did not have the ambition to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, it was a “matter of course” for him to study theology. “The only question was where: in Kampen or at the VU. In those days, you didn’t think about ‘what you wanted to become later on’, like students do now. I saw theology as an interesting broad study, with room for languages such as Greek, Latin and Hebrew.”
There, in Amsterdam, I came in contact with Kuitert. “He was an important name in the Dutch Reformed world, but he was marked by the more conservative movement as ‘dangerous’. He took a very clear stance. One of his famous statements was: ‘All that is spoken about above comes from below, even that which claims that it is from above.’ In the end, Kuitert’s theological thinking grew towards the belief that faith is an illusion: a useful creation by mankind.”
Kuitert taught ethics at the VU. “That subject was a breath of fresh air. You could ask questions about anything. He was all about good argumentation and not about the argument of authority. He also challenged us, and left plenty of room for discussion. I remember that he discussed the drafts of his book Het algemeen betwijfeld christelijk geloof.” (The Generally Questioned Christian Faith). It was mainly Kuitert’s philosophical way of thinking that appealed to Dondorp. “You don’t need to be a Christian to be a good person. Ethics were practised in a scientific manner.”
Dondorp sees Kuitert as “one of the godfathers of medical ethics. Until then, ethics had been something that was mainly discussed in philosophical backrooms, it was about the meaning of terms such as ‘good and evil’. But ethics was associated more and more with practical questions to which answers were needed, such as euthanasia, suicide, and abortion. Stephen Toulmin, a philosopher, once said: How medicine saved the life of ethics. And that is exactly how it is.”
After his graduation in 1983, Dondorp worked as a pastor in Loenen aan de Vecht, but the world of science pulled. He did a PhD under Kuitert with a grant from research financer ZWO (now NWO). “On virtue ethics, something which Kuitert was very sceptical about, because he wondered what it could yield. Still, he was open to it.”

“The godfather of medical ethics”
Author: Wendy Degens
Joey Roberts/ Illustratie Simone Golob
Tags: hero

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