Article Apr 6, 2017

Basic Bioethics: How Christians should think about bioethics

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics. You can find the first article here

Last month I proposed five reasons Christians should care about bioethics. Over the next few months we’ll examine a broad range of individual issues of ethical concern, everything from abortion to xenotransplantation. But this week I want to provide a couple of conceptual tools that will help us to categorize the various bioethical issues and think about them from a Christian perspective.

Influential Christian bioethicist Nigel Cameron has proposed a useful framework for thinking of the three main generations of bioethics as taking life, making life and faking life.

Taking life

In the fourth century B.C., a Greek physician named Hippocrates included in his oath a pledge to forbid the taking of life: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.” Two thousand years later, the profession Hippocrates helped to create has abandoned these very prohibitions. The first category of bioethics addresses the issues that were once common in the pagan days before Hippocrates: abortion (including “abortive remedies” such as abortifacient drugs), infanticide (i.e., partial-birth abortion), euthanasia (both voluntary and involuntary) and physician assisted suicide.

The taking life stage progressed as individuals began to expect complete autonomy and control over their bodies. When disease has progressed to the point where we can no longer control our health we choose euthanasia—“good death.” When we want to regain control over our bodies after becoming pregnant we choose abortion. When we lose control over our will to live we expect physicians to assist in our suicide. We are willing to kill our children or ourselves in a desperate attempt to regain one last measure of control.

Making life

Until the 1970s, all but one child ever born was the result of sexual intercourse; today, there are at least thirty-eight ways to make a baby. In an attempt to conquer infertility we’ve developed dozens of methods, a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms, to create a child: IVF, IUI, ICSI, DI, AI, ET, etc.

The growing number of reproductive technologies has undoubtedly been a blessing to thousands of infertile couples. Yet the methods raise an equal number of ethical concerns. 

A number of the reproductive methods and technologies violate God’s ideal for the family by involving a third party (i.e., egg or sperm donation, surrogacy). Other problems arise from the creation of “spare” embryos that will either be discarded or donated for “research.” The technology has also paved the way for new evils such as human cloning, the creation of “designer” babies and the individualistic eugenics of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

Faking life

Think of this third category as the third act of a story. However, this third act does not resolve the story. Instead, like a postmodern tale, this third act of bioethics only complicates the situation further by, as Nigel Cameron claims, faking life: ‘dis-integrating’ the biological human and melding him with other species or machines.

The issues in this category will be familiar to science fiction aficionados: Genetic Engineering (the creation of designer humans); Neuroethics (such as the use of psychotropic “enhancement” drugs or implantable brain chips); Nanotechnology (the manufacture of molecular machines; cybernetics); Transhumanism (merging of man and machine to create a new form of existence).

All of these concerns seem fantastic and bizarre—yet they are all being considered, debated and pursued by biotechnologists.

The controversies in each of these categories—taking life, making life and faking life—raise serious challenges for the Christian community. How should we respond as Christians? Two bioethicists who have explored that question in detail are John Kilner and C. Ben Mitchell. They offer a model for addressing bioethics from a Christian perspective that is God-centered, reality-bounded and love-impelled.

God-centered

Our radical dependence on God must be our primary point of reference (Matt. 22:37-40, Deut. 6:5, Lev. 19:18). Because of our fallen-ness, our human reasoning is inadequate. A God-centered model, however, acknowledges that inadequacy and recognizes that God is more than adequate for the task (Rom. 3:12, Ps. 14:3, Rom 8:7, Gal. 5:22-23, 1 Thess. 4:7-8, Rom. 12:2, Heb. 1:3, Col. 3:12-13, Luke 10:29-37, Ps. 16:7, Prov. 12:15)

Reality-bounded

To be realistic is to understand reality—the way things really are—and to live accordingly. Because God alone sees all of the reality that exists, we must put our trust in him and what he has revealed, both in creation and in Scripture. Indicators of God’s intentions serve as guides or principles for moral living. Past and present realities include that God is the author of all creation (Gen. 1:1, Ps 89), including humans who are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:6, Jas. 3:9) yet are fallen and sinful (Rom. 3:23). The most important future reality is that Christ will return (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11) and will restore all of creation (Rev. 21:1).

By reflecting on these realities we can gain a better understanding of the legitimate boundaries. We will gain a better grasp of the forms, freedoms, and limits of autonomy, control and technology.

Love-impelled

All of life is to be directed by love for God and love for your neighbor. We are to seek the greatest possible well-being of all persons within the bounds of reality as God has created and intended it. Love considers the consequences of our decisions (Rom. 13:8-9, Gal. 5:14, 1 Cor. 10:24, Matt. 22:34-40, John 13:34, John 15:12, 1 John 3:16-17) and the motives for our actions (1 Cor. 13:3, 2 Cor. 9:7). Jesus shows us what love looks like in the face of suffering, whether from infertility or from impending death, and calls us to live in the same way (Mark 16:18; Luke 16:19-31).

Note the hierarchy in the layers of this model. An action that is not God-centered will not be consistent with reality and actions that are not reality-bounded, particularly bounded by the realities of Scripture, will not be love-impelled. Furthermore, this model is unidirectional: Decisions must accord with the layers above it in order to be ethical and consistent with a Christian worldview.

Armed with these categories—taking life, making life, faking life—and this model—God-centered, reality-bounded and love-impelled—you’ll be able to inform yourself, educate others, and work toward bringing a Christian perspective to bear on issues of bioethics.

Note: Portions of this article were adapted from an essay I previously co-wrote with Matthew Eppinette, the executive director for The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Other articles in this series: 

Why Christians should care about bioethics