Article Jun 1, 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.

In the previous article in this series we looked at why Christians should care about bioethics. Now let’s consider a broad framework for how followers of Jesus should think about these issues from a Biblical perspective.

Almost all high-profile bioethics issues fall into three categories that theologian Nigel Cameron has categorized 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, a term meaning “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 and ourselves in a desperate attempt to regain one last measure of control.

Making Life

Until the 1970’s, all but one child ever born was the result of sexual intercourse; today, there are at least 38 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 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 like 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 and Charles Colson have said, faking life: “that is, ‘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, 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. In their book Does God Need Our Help? 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 reason is inadequate. A God-centered model, however, acknowledges that inadequacy and recognizes that God is more than adequate for the task (Rom. 3:12, Psa. 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, Psa. 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, Psa. 89), including humans who are made in the image of God  (Gen. 9:6, James 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 and 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 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 show 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.

Now that we have a better understanding of why bioethics matters and how Christians should think about such issues, let’s look at how individuals can bring a Biblical perspective to bear on these issues. That’s the topic will take up next month.

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.