Bioethics: a primer for Christians

By Brian Edgar

The rapid growth in biotechnology and the ever increasing complexity of the issues makes it easy to forget just how new the field of bioethics really is. In 1996 Gilbert Meilander wrote Bioethics: a primer for Christians and there is no surprise that a new and revised edition is now needed. Yet despite the changing times the book stands up well. The fundamental principles remain but Meilander has taken the opportunity to make the data more current and in some places – though not many – he has chosen to change his views. For example, the notion that an embryo’s individual humanity might only begin at fourteen days – after the possibility of twinning has been eliminated – has been discarded in favour of a stronger recognition of the status of the earlier embryo. This is on the basis that it can now be shown that it is not a featureless mass of cells but an integrated self-developing organism with, for example, an axis determining the formation of head and feet.

Meilander’s book is for Christians and it operates on a distinctly theological foundation. It thus challenges a number of principles commonly assumed to be valid and introduces others which may appear strange to some. Even when they are not completely persuasive they are stimulating and helpful.  The first chapter sets out his understanding of the Christian vision. He discusses the nature of being individuals in community; freedom and finitude; person and body; suffering and disease and healing. Those absorbed in the technological possibilities inherent in contemporary biotechnology may find the development of the idea of the body difficult. His stress on the moral meaning of biological bonds stands in contrast to the notion that persons and families can be constructed at will. He interprets many innovations as unhelpful forms of social engineering. Those Christians deeply involved in developing this technology may find his conservatism challenging.

There are chapters on assisted reproduction; abortion; genetic technology; prenatal screening; suicide and euthanasia; the refusal of treatment; decision-making processes; organ donation; human experimentation; embryo research and sickness and health. Some of his major concerns relate to the commodification of health care; the shift in the motive for using medical technology from treating disease to treating desires; the moral meaning of biological bonds (interesting but not fully convincing for me as a parent of an adopted child); the problem of self-deception in the use of technology; the level at which technological activism becomes idolatry and the problems of utilitarianism. He advocates developing the courage to decline to use medical technologies if they become substitutes for trust in God or if they commodify persons or relationships.

His views challenge technocratic and consumerist points of view.  Some might view it as unrealistic for the world of today but it must be remembered that he is not putting forward a legislative program for society as a whole but is issuing a call to Christians to consider the how they can best live before God. The call to a moral life will involve more sacrifices and challenges than can be established by law.

Medically speaking, death, sickness and infertility are usually seen as problems to be overcome. For Meilander the more important issue is to find God through them and to live a life that is honouring to the Lord. His suggestions are, therefore, not always orientated towards the most pragmatic solutions. It can be asked whether it is always necessary to choose between medical technology and obedience but one is nonetheless definitely challenged by his commitment. He sees technology as having its own momentum which must be resisted

This review of Bioethics: a primer for Christians” by Gilbert Meilander first appeared in  Evangelical Review of Theology, Vol. 30, No. 2 (April 2006) 185-186.

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