Bioethics, A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age, by Scott B. Rae & Paul M. Cox, Eerdmans, 326 pages, $24, paper.
Bioethics, formerly the stuff of science fiction, is now the philosophical arena in which the Christian ethic most starkly confronts secularism. This opposition is urgently illustrated by the recent appointment of philosopher Peter Singer—who openly advocates the permissible and deliberate killing of certain "imperfect" infants—to a prestigious teaching position at Princeton University.
Can the historic Christian position—that all human beings are intrinsically valuable—sustain itself against the instrumentalized view of Singer and others, which holds that people are valuable because of what they can do, and because other people want them? Bioethics takes this view to task, and builds a solid foundation upon which Christians can reliably stand while puzzling out the sometimes dizzying complexities of the new biotechnology.
Authors Scott Rae and Paul Cox (who both teach biblical studies and Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology) begin by surveying the most influential approaches to contemporary bioethical analyses. From the natural-law emphases of Roman Catholics to the creative philosophies of Protestant and Jewish writers to the hodgepodge of quirky ideas offered by various secular commentators, the authors show that in each case there is a poor fit between theory and medical reality.
The need for an alternative is clear, and this they give in their featured section,"Pillars of a Christian Approach. " In this six-chapter unit, Rae and Cox scan the central issues in bioethics. They discuss a biblically grounded understanding of the legitimate uses of medical technology; the sacred nature of human life and the objective personhood of the patient; and the meaning of patient autonomy, the nature of death, and fair healthcare delivery systems. Each of these chapters is footnoted well and balanced in its interaction with opposing viewpoints, yet not pedantic or so jargon-ridden as to be inaccessible to the lay reader.
The pivotal chapter, "The Personhood of the Patient," draws on the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, making a classical but largely forgotten distinction between the categories of "substances" and "property-things." Against the unfortunate habit of most bioethicists today, the authors argue that human beings have an "internal essence" that defines and coherently orders them through change. Thus, a person is not someone who can do certain things (e.g., caring for one's self, remembering the past, using all five senses), resulting in a good enough "quality of life."
Rather, a person is a category of being: simply a human being, the offspring of a man and woman.
Recognizing the impact their position has on how one understands everything from abortion to fetal-tissue research to high-tech infertility treatments, Rae and Cox explain the philosophical progression:
"First, an adult human being is the result of the continuous process of growth that begins at conception. Second, from conception to adulthood there is no break in this development which is relevant to the moral status of personhood. Therefore, one is a human being from the point of conception onward."
Whether it is fetal viability, brain development, sentience, quickening, birth, or the implantation of the fertilized ovum, the authors expose the arbitrary character of such standards, none of which directly engages the classical argument from substance. Similarly, functional definitions of personhood—from consciousness, reasoning ability, and self-motivation to communication, self-awareness and memory—all fail because they confuse ability and essence. An entity is what it is, not what it does.
More on how our society fell into this mess would have offered helpful context for this book, and perhaps even underlined the usefulness of the contemporary bioethic the authors so finely draw. Still, Rae and Cox have done impressive work in showing that the biblical worldview can cogently speak to even the laboratories and operating rooms of the 21st century.
Brad Stetson is a lecturer at Biola University. He is the author of Tender Fingerprints: A True Story of Loss and Resolution (Zondervan, 1999).
See today's related article, " Books & Culture Corner: Mad Scientist Holds World Hostage | Thoughts on the 'rough draft of the genome map.'"
Bioethics: A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age, is available from the Christianity Online Bookstore and other book retailers.
Scott Rae wrote " Brave New Families? The Ethics of the New Reproductive Technologies" for the Christian Research Journal.
Peter Singer's appointment to a teaching position at Princeton in 1998 generated much controversy. Arguments in support of Singer, including those of Princeton's president, can be found at a Web site created by one of Singer's former students. Arguments against Singer are offered by Sarah L. Triano, a student at the University of Chicago. Last fall, a debate took place between Peter Singer and Wellesley College ethicist Adrienne Asch on " Ethics, Health Care and Disability, " and it's available in RealAudio and RealVideo. Extensive news coverage of the Singer controversy is available here.
Solid Christian discussions of bioethics can be found at the Christian Medical & Dental Society, the Center for Biblical Bioethics, and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
In a revealing article, The Guardian looked at how some—including the head of the Scottish Episcopal Church—want to create a godless ethical system.
Previous CT reporting on bioethics includes:
No Room in the Womb? | Couples with high-risk pregnancies face the 'selective reduction' dilemma. (Dec. 6, 1999)
The Biotech Temptation | Research on human embryos holds great promise, but at what price? (July 12, 1999)
Preparing for the Brave New Millennium | We might be ready for the Rapture, but are we prepared for babies engineered for perfection? (Dec. 7, 1998)
Stop Cloning Around | In the flurry of scientific boundary breaking, let's remember that humans are not sheep. (April 28, 1997)
Sister publication Christian Reader has covered the ethics of human cloning, and a Books & Culture piece offers reasons why Christians should oppose human cloning.
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