As we move into year six of the "biotech century," it's worth reminding ourselves how we got this way of counting years in the first place. The fight between "Christmas" and "the holidays" is secondary, though the secularizers don't seem to realize that. Behind it lies the vise-like grip of Christian revelation on the calendar.
It was Jesus' birth that set the clock running for the modern world's idea of time. Every brief filed and op-ed written by those who want to strip religion from our public life is dated by the Christian calendar. We are now into 2006 Anno Domini"in the year of Our Lord." And while the secularizers of the mid-20th century have convinced a lot of people to use C.E./B.C.E. (Common Era, Before Common Era) in place of A.D./B.C., the joke really is on them. Guess why this is the Common Era? The secularizers have to live with that fact. He who sits in heaven laughs.
This isn't just another jab from our side in the culture wars. It's a reminder of the extraordinary and pervasive influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and specifically its Christian manifestation, on the life of the world. This is nowhere more clear (though often unnoticed) than in the impact of the "Enlightenment," with its notions of human rights and human dignity. At the core of this enormously important 18thcentury intellectual movement lay the rejection of revealed religion. Yet, in the providence of God, part of its effect was to translate Christian values into public language, which in today's largely secularized public square is powering the fight for freedom of religion, democracy, and the dignity of women around the world.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the most influential document of the 20th century, is a manifesto for human dignity. And in 2005, it was joined by the U.N. Declaration on Human Cloning and the UNESCO (UN Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. The cloning declarationwhich has been barely reported anywhere in the U.S.calls on all nations to ban cloning for any purpose.
The UNESCO declaration is a consensus statement and naturally fudges some issues, but it includes a ringing declaration that while cultural relativism and pluralism are important, they cannot be used to undermine fundamental human rights and freedoms. This is the Enlightenment at its best: promoting the Christian worldview in public language, and doing so not because it's Christian, but because it is true. Christians have been happy to work together with unbelievers on issues of human rights and freedoms, just as William Wilberforce worked to end the slave trade two centuries ago.
We neglect at our peril the common base for thinking and action that remains the deposit of the Christian worldview in an increasingly secularized world.
So what lies ahead? We have noted that Professor Peter Singer, the clearest and most consequential thinker on the other side of all debates about human life, has intervened in the cloning debate on the side of the cloners. He has begun to join the dots of the ethics of the Brave New World. Singer tends to say in public the things other proponents only think in private, and he says such things in such a way as to make obvious the end result of the logic of those who support the undermining of human dignity for "scientific" ends. We can only hope that he causes similar embarrassment to apologists for cloning.
Looking Ahead: Taking, Making, and Faking
I have grouped the bioethical challenges into three sections: taking life (abortion and euthanasia), making life (designer babies, cloning, changes in the germlineinheritable genetic engineering), and faking life (artificial intelligencebrain implants and then humanoid robots?). These are the challenges, and they confront us from different directions. How do we maintain human dignity (for we are made in the image of God) in the face of these assaults on our integrity?
In 2006, the struggle to roll back abortion will continue, as we seek to contain euthanasia. Even here, in the "taking life" arena, we have allies. Not everyone who favors abortion in some circumstances favors it in all, and conscientious "pro-choice" advocates are often uneasy about abortion for handicap or for trivial reasons, even if they maintain it should be a woman's choice. On euthanasia, we have many allies. The hottest euthanasia debate at the moment is in the U.K., and just last week Professor Lord Winston, the top U.K. test-tube baby expert and no friend to pro-lifers, said that the current effort to bring in Oregon-style euthanasia was "mad."
The cloning debate continues to rumble, and the tragi-comedy of Dr. Hwang's exploits is being widely seen as a threat to the hubristic promotion of this technology. In California, the pro-cloning $3 billion Proposition 71 is still hung up in the courts, as public sentiment and liberal political opinion becomes increasingly critical of a project that so recently they had favored. The passage by Congress of the umbilical cord blood bill shows that we are not dependent on costly and ethically controversial research to get real "stem cell cures."
This may yet emerge as "the big one." While we applaud technology that could, for example, give brain-damaged people the chance to lead full lives, if that same technology is used to enable healthy (and no doubt wealthy) people to become superhuman, it raises huge problems. Nanotechnologyour capacity to manipulate matter on a very small scalecould prove the key, and it needs to be handled responsibly. The debates around these questions will compound in significance during 06.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Life Matters columns include:
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Offand Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
Bioethics in Narnia? | C. S. Lewis was way ahead of the curve. (Nov. 30, 2005)
Inventing Ethics | A collaborator walks out on the South Korean cloning genius, citing ethical lapses. (Nov. 18, 2005)
The Killing Fields of Holland: Next It's the Kids | From the Netherlands to California, from stem cells to nanotechnology, how we treat life matters. (Nov. 9, 2005)
Nations United on Bioethics | But is anybody in the West reading the new declaration? (Oct. 19, 2005)
Dr. Frist's Dilemma | The Majority Leader's contradictions mirror the opinions of the public at large. (Oct. 11, 2005)
Cloning Still Haunts California | Remember Prop. 71? Stem-cell research supporters hope voters don't remember the promises they made. (Oct. 5, 2005)
Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.