Article Jul 13, 2017

Basic Bioethics: How to illuminate the Christian perspective

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics.

Because bioethics is a topic that is unfamiliar for most Christians, I’ve used the previous three articles outlining why Christians should care about bioethics and how we can better think about such issues. Now let’s consider some ways believers can bring a Christian perspective to bear on issues of bioethics in their own circles of influence.

Although there are numerous ways to approach this task, I want to emphasize a narrative approach—using story, metaphors, books, and movies—to illuminate the Christian perspective on bioethics.

Raise awareness: The single greatest contribution most Christians can make in regards to bioethics is simply to help raise awareness of specific issues, particularly those that threaten human dignity.

We often find that Christians are completely unaware of the challenges that arise, particularly from the emerging field of biotechnology. Consider, for example, the issue of the creation of chimeras, hybrid creatures that are part human, part animal. Many people assume that we are talking about futuristic scenarios of science fiction, rather than experiments that are taking place in university laboratories today. They are often shocked to learn that Chinese researchers fused human cells with rabbit eggs or that a professor at the University of Nevada created the world's first human-sheep chimera—a creature that has 15 percent human cells and 85 percent animal cells. They are usually even more surprised to find those events occurred, respectively, in 2003 and 2007. This is an example of an issue that has been around for over a decade while few of us were paying attention.

Even when the mainstream media covers the stories they often pass from the public's attention before the underlying questions can even be examined. By helping to draw attention to such articles, we can provide the invaluable awareness that is needed for the community of believers to provide an adequate response.

Shape the language: The preservation of human dignity requires us to fight for the hearts and souls of our fellow man. One of the key ways in which Christians can aid in this struggle is to reclaim the linguistic high ground.

Language not only shapes the thought processes of individuals but molds the public discourse about bioethical issues. Dr. Leon Kass, former Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, provides a stark example:

Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as “begetting” or “siring.” The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning “to come into being.” . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term “pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine and the gross national product (our own work of creation), employ a metaphor of the factory, “re-production.”

When you stop to consider the differences between such phrases as “methods of procreation” and “reproductive technology” it begins to become clear why Christians are losing ground in the fight to preserve the concept of human dignity. Any attempt to argue that embryonic human life is deserving of a particular moral status is undercut when we are using such phrases like “blastocysts produced by the technological advances of in vitro fertilization.” The language of the factory and of human dignity is as incompatible as would be the interchangeability of machine and life. Such degradation of language only leads to linguistic confusion and muddy thinking.

Engage Popular Culture: When Leon Kass took the helm of the newly created President's Council on Bioethics in 2002, he opened the council's first session in a peculiar way: he asked the other members to read Nathaniel Hawthorne's story “The Birthmark.”

Dr. Kass understood the irreplaceable role that narrative plays in developing a “richer understanding and deeper appreciation of our humanity.”

On almost every issue in bioethics, our initial introduction comes not through medical journals, scholarly essays, or even articles on websites like ERLC.com. They come from stories and narrative forms. Most of us first learn about infertility and surrogacy through the story of the biblical patriarch Abraham, his wife Sarah, and their servant Hagar. We are exposed to the themes of reproductive technology and genetic engineering through high school book reports on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. And many of our fellow citizens gained their initial exposure to voluntary euthanasia from watching Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning film, Million Dollar Baby.

In fact, movies are one of the primary mediums in which bioethical issues are most commonly presented. Just a few of the movies that have included bioethical concerns as primary to central plot are Me Before You (2016), Amour (2012), Bella (2006), The Island (2005), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Godsend (2004), Vera Drake (2004), Code 46 (2003), Minority Report (2002), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), AI (2001), The 6th Day (2000), Bicentennial Man (1999), The Cider House Rules (1999), Gattaca (1997), and Citizen Ruth (1996). (Note: Not all of these movies are recommended or would be suitable for all Christians).

Novels are also a key form for raising questions about medical ethics and biotechnology. Some of the most prominent in the last few years include Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper, Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

Most people will react emotionally to such narratives—as the authors and directors intended—but few will examine their intellectual content. Christians can help illuminate these issues by discussing such films, books, plays, and stories from a Christian worldview. Exploring how reproductive and genetic freedom is addressed in Gattaca, for instance, or pondering the implications of manipulating the human brain in Eternal Sunshine can help guide your friends and family in thinking Christianly about these issues.

Conclusion

Eventually either the Christian perspective on bioethics will achieve a dominant level of acceptance or the secularist view will win, slowly but assuredly, by default. Each path will lead to sharply different results. The Christian approach—God-centered, reality-bounded, and love-impelled—leads to freedom, equality, and respect for all humanity. Basing bioethics on utilitarian and emotive values, however, results in the degradation of human dignity. Which path we choose will determine the fate of bioethics. And the fate of bioethics will determine the fate of our future.

Note: Over the next few months this series will examine individual issues that arise in bioethics and biotechnology.

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.