Brave New World? (1)
Written by Douglas Milne
|Reformed Ethics - Bioethics|
Embryo research is the new holocaust, a genocide behind closed doors. An interview with Dr. Douglas Milne.
Dr. Douglas Milne is principal of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne. Born in Dundee, Scotland, he completed arts and divinity degrees at Aberdeen University, then served as a minister of the Free Church. Dr. Milne also completed post-graduate studies at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, as well as a doctorate in theology from South Africa. He went to Australia in 1978 to take up the position of professor of New Testament at the Presbyterian Theological College, where he has served for thirty years. His academic interests have expanded to include theology, ethics, and philosophy. In recent years he has developed a special interest in bioethics and has completed additional post-graduate research with an Australian university. He has published a number of books and articles on the Ten Commandments, the Gospel of Luke, the Parables of Jesus, the Pastoral Letters, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. In this and a subsequent article, Dr. Milne is interviewed by Peter Hastie, editor of The Australian Presbyterian, from which these articles are adapted with permission.
Dr. Milne, what is bioethics?
Bioethics is the study of ethics in the light of the new biotechnologies that have arisen in the second part of the twentieth century. As a discipline, it focuses on human life and human beings. Since we believe that human beings have ultimate value and intrinsic dignity, the manipulation of human life, for example, raises immediate ethical questions about human worth and dignity. Bioethicists are concerned about the rights and wrongs of manipulating human life at any stage, whether at the beginning of life, where many of these technologies are concentrated, or in the middle of life, through genetic engineering, or even perhaps at the end of life, through questions relating to euthanasia.
So, what are bioethicists attempting to do?
Bioethicists are professionals whose role is to look into the legitimacy of new technologies, therapies, and techniques that arise in relation to modern medicine, and to express an expert opinion, usually to ethical committees or medical professionals, who have the responsibility and the know-how to manage these technologies.
Do they have any special claim to expertise?
They are professionals in their own right. They have now replaced philosophers and theologians, who figured more in the early days of biomedicine. Bioethicists receive special training in ethics as well as in how to relate to hospital committees and other medical professionals who have the responsibility for forming public policies. So, they learn to serve a number of groups of people who have a stake in bioethics.
Do they tend to have a better understanding of ethical issues than theologians or philosophers?
I am not convinced that they do. There is a widespread opinion that for all the bioethical input that is available today, there seems to be a dangerous imbalance between the crucial sorts of decisions that are being made and the kind of serious debate that is required to address the underlying issues. The overall impression that observers are developing is that bioethicists tend to accede to the requests of scientists or those with vested interests in biotechnology.
Who are the vested interests behind the push for biotechnologies? How powerful are they?
The vested interests are easily identified by following the money trail. They are almost always associated with funding because the main stake holders in biotechnologies today are large and powerful bodies like governments, pharmaceutical companies, and multinational organizations. A lot of these bodies give generous grants to research, so they carry enormous influence. It can be very difficult for an individual to stand up to these vested interests and parties. There is a lot of lobbying that goes on in the world of biotechnologies that involves huge quantities of money. What drives most of it is the dollar and profit margins. This goes a long way to explaining why governments have such a vital interest in the area. It certainly explains a lot of the intense interest from researchers and pharmaceutical companies. In a sense, they are all people who support one another.
Who are the main players in the field of bioethics?
At the moment, the main players are probably the state and federal governments. This is so for a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of prestige that attaches to breakthroughs in new research. If governments can capture the very best people in these fields to come and work in their own city or state, then this certainly promotes a state, city, or major research center. So, it’s good for kudos. But there’s also the money factor. When certain places become renowned for research and development, then there are financial spinoffs. When a place becomes well known internationally, it has to be good for tourism. Foreign investors are also likely to be interested in frontline research in biotechnology. The potential for profits is enormous.
Are there many Christians involved in the field of bioethics?
That very much depends on what country you are talking about. Certainly the United States has a lot of Christians engaged in biomedicine. The Americans are the ones who have mounted the most serious and worthwhile challenges to some of the things that are going on or being proposed. Some centers in America specialize in bioethics and publish some excellent information for the general Christian public.
Who are they?
My own personal favorite is the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Deerfield, Illinois. It has a website: www.cbhd.org. The center provides quite outstanding and thoroughly up-to-date resources for people all over the world. It gives a Christian viewpoint on the latest developments and technologies and also provides a global coverage of the most recent events in biomedicine.
Why is bioethics such an important subject for Christians?
It’s important for a number of reasons. First, it raises ethical issues. Christianity is an ethical religion. Ethics are an integral part of Christian teaching and form a central part of the teaching of the Bible. We only have to think of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount or the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. That’s the first reason.
Second, bioethics raises philosophical issues that touch the very foundations of the Christian faith. It raises issues about the nature and identity of humankind, and questions about who we are, why we exist, how we should live in society, and what values we should choose. Further, it raises questions about the status of the institution of marriage and reproduction, and it also puts issues of eschatology on the discussion table as well. For instance, what sort of society do we plan for in the future? What sort of principles should govern life in the world that we are shaping with biotechnology?
Third, bioethics is going to have a significant impact on the shape of the world our children inherit. Since it will be an important formative influence on our cultural values, we owe it to our children to become increasingly involved in this debate. We need to be more aware of the shape of things to come so that we can give informed Christian advice to our children and other believers who are struggling to understand the significance of what is taking place around us.
Finally, I think that bioethics is an important area for Christian engagement with society because it offers an opportunity for the Christian churches to speak a word for God the Creator, and to provide the final Christian answer which we believe is in Jesus Christ. So, bioethics offers evangelistic entry points into society, too.
You said that one of the signs of a civilized society is a respect for the sanctity of human life .What is happening in the West that is threatening a distinctively Christian view of human life?
Basically, the theological view of the sanctity of life is being replaced with a much more secular and pragmatic belief in the quality of life. Belief in the sanctity of life is certainly a Christian distinctive which has played a major role in shaping the Christian Hippocratic tradition for two thousand years in western medicine. In the twentieth century, we have seen the decline of Christian influence and the rise of alternative movements like post-modernism and relativism. What we are discovering at the moment is t hat we need religious underpinnings to safeguard belief in the sanctity of life. That has been now largely lost and in its place has come a concern about so-called quality of life.
Can you define “quality” for us?
Quality of life for many bioethicists means a life worth living according to their own subjective judgments. Of course, different people will have different views about what constitutes that, but basically quality of life refers to a level of well-being which would enable people to interact socially and enjoy a meaningful existence in a community. It would also be related to their ability to contribute something to the social well-being of that group.
For example, would quality of life include things like deafness or blindness?
Well, the more radical representatives of this position, people like Peter Singer for example, would take the view that such disabilities could well make such a life not worth living. Accordingly, they would place deaf people on a lower scale than hearing persons, and this, in turn, would imply that deaf people were less entitled to legal rights and protection than people without disabilities.
The more radical people in this group would be willing to deny full legal protection to people who, through genetic testing or other scientific means, could be shown to be more likely to suffer significant impairment to their quality of life in the future. This explains their support for abortion and their willingness to eliminate defective embryos. It also affects their approach to the problems of old age. For example, they are in favor of euthanasia. In some countries at the moment, we have voluntary euthanasia but, as we know from history, what starts out as voluntary euthanasia can very easily become compulsory euthanasia.
So, are you suggesting that some of these radicals, based on their line of reasoning, would have eliminated people like Beethoven and Helen Keller before they even came into the world?
That’s exactly right. Beethoven suffered from profound deafness and Helen Keller was born blind and without any hearing. Presumably, if they had been subjected to today’s genetic testing in utero, they would never have been born. We would never have enjoyed Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony, for instance. Incidentally, the fact that ethicists like Singer see no problem in terminating embryos which could conceivably develop into famous writers and composers is a strong argument against their position that doesn’t entail any religious justification. Some of the accomplishments of disabled people show us that quality of life isn’t always tied up with our bodily condition. That reminds us that human existence is more than the life of the body, as Jesus Himself taught us.
What sources of knowledge does a bioethicist rely upon to formulate his or her views?
Most bioethicists (who are usually not Christians) start by accepting the consensus of modern medicine about basic principles, such as non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and autonomy. I mention these four because they are cardinal principles in modern biomedicine, and they have been popularized and established as guidelines through the work of Tom Beauchamp and James Childress. Their book is a classical text and it’s still a standard text for people in the field today. It draws its values from a number of sources—human experience, philosophical ethics based on generally accepted moral values, a moral understanding of human nature, and pragmatism. So, it lacks the broad foundation of Christian ethics.
Is it enough for Christians to know their Bibles when dealing with bioethics?
The Bible is the best place to start and, indeed, a necessary place to start for Christians doing bioethics. However, I think it’s desirable to add other helps to the Bible. I am thinking here of the discipline of Christian theology because I have already said that biomedicine raises conceptual issues. For instance, bioethics raises the issue, “What is man?” So, we need a good biblical and Christian anthropology in order to do bioethics. The whole idea of the image of God is central to that. The problem for Christians doing bioethics is that the Scriptures don’t specifically address most of the problems that we face in modern medicine. So the Christian worldview that Scripture gives us needs to be developed if we are to tackle the sort of questions that arise. In addition, I think it’s good to be conversant with the history of Christian ethics and ethics in general.
Do you need to have any knowledge of science and medicine?
That is essential as well. You certainly need some knowledge of biology, particularly cellular life and development. You would also need to know something about modern genetics and the scientific techniques for manipulating, dividing, and reconnecting DNA. All of that is basic for understanding genetic engineering and the issues it raises.What are the major doctrines in Scripture that underpin the sanctity of life?The first would be the doctrine of divine creation out of nothing. I know that most scientists in the field of biotechnology believe in some form of evolution; nevertheless, I think it’s very difficult to sustain a high view of human dignity using these assumptions (even those of theistic evolution). So, I think a clear and strong doctrine of creation, that is, of special creation, is most consistent with a belief in the sanctity of life. I have in mind here the early chapters of Genesis where God creates the human being with a great deal of purpose and forethought, and describes the human being as an image bearer of Himself. And that is true of all human beings, not just Christian believers. This is a defining aspect, if not the most defining aspect of our humanity. It’s on that basis that Christians have asserted the sanctity of human life at every stage.
Dr. Douglas Milne is principal of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. This article was printed in Heritage Reformed Churches' "The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth" and is republished here with permission.