A Tribute for Paul D. Simmons, Ph.D., Th.M.


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Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): In Memoriam

by Brian H. Childs, Ph.D., HEC-C

Paul D. Simmons died on March 17, 2019 at the age of 82. Simmons was a leading figure within the religious/theological ethics community and was a major influence in bioethics and medical education. Dr. Simmons was a courageous prophet within the Southern Baptist tradition and, as with many prophets, was not appreciated and was in fact banished by Southern Baptist leadership.

Simmons was born in Troy, Tennessee and was a star athlete and valedictorian of his high school class. He went on to Union College earning a degree in English and later attended Southeastern Seminary at Wake Forest where he earned the M.Div. (Master of Divinity) and the Th.M. (Master of Theology). At Wake Forest he met his future wife Betty Kinlaw. He subsequently went to the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he earned the Ph.D. in Christian Ethics in 1969 with a dissertation entitled “Selective Conscientious Objection as an Approach to Christian Participation in Warfare.” After earning his doctorate he remained at the Southern Baptist Seminary as a member of the faculty for 23 years.

It was after the Supreme Court Decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973 that the issue of abortion moved from the court to the church. In the face of vehement Southern Baptist opposition to all abortion, Simmons wrote “Since men will never know the threat and terror of childbirth, nor be faced with pregnancy—wanted or otherwise—they are poor arbiters in the abortion debate. Even so, men are the power brokers—politically, legally and morally—when it comes to setting the terms for abortion. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has moved to recognize the inequity confronted by women.” Simmons later went on to join a group of 216 ethicists, along with four other Southern Baptist professors of ethics, who opposed the absolutist position that it is always wrong to terminate a pregnancy at any time after conception. Simmons’ position was informed by a strong theological stance informed by the centrality of conscience, a conception of personhood v. a placeholder for personhood, and the role of community in caring.

In 1992 the Board of Trustees at Southern Seminary, then intoxicated by Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority,” initiated heresy charges against Simmons. Simmons fought against those charges and gained support from other theology professors from around the country. He was finally forced to retire early after he was charged with being unfit to teach because he taught a course on sexual ethics which included a documentary film involving the sexual experiences of quadriplegic persons which the board considered to be pornographic.

Simmons was immediately recruited by the medical school at the University of Louisville. While at the medical school Simmons taught ethics with students in the pre-clinical years as well as rounding with third and fourth year medical students on ward rounds. He also wrote several books on medical ethics, sexual ethics, and a major work on the freedom of conscience. He lectured broadly with presentations as provocative as “Cyborgs and the Human Future”; “Post-Abortion Depression and the Ethics of Truth Telling”; and “Abortion and Public Policy: Casey, the Klan and Beyond.” He was chair of the University of Louisville Medical Center Ethics Committee, held regular ethics rounds on the floors, and consulted with several programs across the nation.

I knew Dr. Simmons when he spent a sabbatical year in Princeton in 1976-77 when I was in graduate school there. This was during the time when the Karen Ann Quinlan case was a major topic in New Jersey. Simmons studied and developed several publications dealing with euthanasia, abortion and public policy while there. He became conversation partners with two of my graduate school professors, Seward Hiltner at the Princeton Theological Seminary and Paul Ramsey at Princeton University. He and Ramsey did not always agree and when they did not it was a marvel and a privilege to listen in the spirited debate between two major religious ethicists. I remember one such discussion at the Catholic Student Center at the University. What I saw in Dr. Simmons was a major intellect and a very kind and gentle soul who could hold his own with his equal in Paul Ramsey.

Paul D. Simmons was one of the early theological ethicists who helped form what we now know as the modern bioethics movement. His voice will be missed, just as we miss the voice of Paul Ramsey, John Fletcher, Warren Reich, and others including those informed by a religious tradition such as Tristram Engelhardt and Ed Pellegrino. There are fewer of us religious ethicists around and for that the field of bioethics is less rich and nuanced.

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