Article Mar 23, 2017

Basic bioethics: Why Christians should care about bioethics

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

Abortion. Euthanasia. Surrogacy. Cloning. Some of the most contentious and disputed issues of our day are matters of bioethics, an interdisciplinary field that addresses what we should and should not pursue in matters of life and health. These issues touch on the very core of our humanity: dignity and worth, sickness and health, life and death. Yet the harsh reality is that while bioethical concerns are increasingly confronting us in the media, in the public square and in our personal lives, few people grasp the science involved in the “bio,” or the moral dilemmas involved in the “ethics” of bioethics.

As Christians, we need to reflect on these advances, changes and controversies and to know how they are changing the way we live. To aid in the basic understanding of bioethics for Christians, I’m starting a monthly series to explain a broad range of concepts and issues for those with no special knowledge (or even particular interest) in the ongoing debates.

But before we begin looking at individual issues, let’s first consider five reasons why Christians have a particular responsibility to understand and be involved in bioethics:

5 reasons Christians should care

The first reason is what can be called the “It can’t happen to me” syndrome. The situations that arise in bioethics are often considered to be concerns that affect other people but have no bearing on our own lives: Other people must make painful decisions about the dying process; other people suffer from the problems associated with infertility; other people must make decisions about “spare” embryos.

Yet even when we are not directly affected, our role as “neighbors” to people in a fallen world will lead us to face these concerns. A friend may experience an unexpected pregnancy and seek our advice about abortion. A parent’s health may deteriorate to the point where decisions must be made about feeding tubes or respirators. A friend may find they are unable to have children and will seek technological solutions to cure their infertility.

The pace and proliferation of biomedical advancement also compels our involvement in bioethics. Nearly every week the media announces a new discovery, treatment or advance in medicine. How are we to respond as Christians? In his book Brave New Church: What the Future Holds, Richard Kew says, “It would appear that research is advancing at such a pace that our ethical understanding of its consequences is unable to keep up with the moral outcome of our actions.” Science’s outpacing of ethics places a burden, as Kew notes, on “the Christian community to step in and become society’s conscience in some way or another.”

A third reason for our necessary involvement in bioethical issues relates to our rights and responsibilities as citizens. As Americans, we have a right to participate in the political processes of our country and the corresponding responsibility to inform ourselves on the issues. This is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Notre Dame philosopher David Solomon says, “The political realm has replaced the ethical realm in our society.” And George Annas, Boston University professor of health law notes, “Ethics is generally taken seriously by physicians and scientists only when it either fosters their agenda or does not interfere with it.”

Additionally, our responsibilities as Christians have bearing on our involvement in bioethics. Bioethics affects us not only on a personal level as individuals but also on a corporate level as members of the body of Christ. Bioethics touches areas of our lives that are deeply personal, often when we are physically and emotionally vulnerable. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are currently struggling with bioethical issues in their lives, and even more of our neighbors outside of the church are in need of our counsel. In times of personal bioethical crisis, they tend to seek out communities of faith for objective, reasoned, biblically sound guidance. As the body of Christ, we must be ready to respond to those who are hurting, reach out to them and point them to Christ, whether by providing prayer, encouragement or ethical advice.

Finally, wisdom demands that we be prepared, that we develop a carefully reasoned, biblically based approach to bioethics before it is needed. Bioethical quandaries often arise suddenly and in the midst of personal crises. If we have not taken the time to prepare a godly response, we can easily slip into the popular medical ethos of our time, which relies on utilitarian ethics and emotional responses. As Christians, we must reject this individual approach by providing a God-centered alternative.

In both society and in our personal lives, 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 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 choices we make in bioethics will largely determine the outcome of our earthly future.

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.