How proactive should Christians be in learning about emerging biomedical technologies?
by Gareth Jones
I spend much of my time thinking and writing about the biomedical technologies, and it will come as no surprise to most readers when I write that within Christian circles much of this is highly controversial territory. While there are many reasons for this, one of them is that Christians are ill-prepared for the range of issues encountered. We are at home in thinking about the obvious issues of abortion and euthanasia, even if there are major disagreements among us. However, neither of these conversations requires technological sophistication or detailed scientific knowledge.
But what about in vitro fertilization (IVF) to overcome barriers to fertility, the use of stem cells to regenerate tissues, gene therapy and the editing of genes to correct inherited genetic mutations, or the use of functional MRI to investigate and perhaps manipulate aspects of human thinking and moral responses? It is very easy to dismiss such developments as threatening human dignity or the sacredness of human life, or as transgressing the legitimate powers of humans created in the image of God. Responses such as these are not informed by the state of the science, and pay little attention to ways in which these developments may prove immensely beneficial to human beings. Of course, they require close scrutiny, scientifically, clinically and theologically, and this is where Christians should be doing some hard thinking.
The reality though is sobering. When these developments emerge into the light of day few Christians have sufficient understanding of the science to assess them in Christian terms. Consequently, the initial responses of church bodies and pastors are often negative and simplistic. Christians (let alone politicians and other public figures) tend to be unaware of the scientific work that is underway, even though none of this has taken place in private.
It was with these thoughts in mind that in the context of the introduction of IVF I made the comment in a recent issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (1) that “some Christian writers took note of IVF . . . . However, this was six years after the birth of the first IVF child in 1978 . . . , a period during which well over 1,000 children had already been born using IVF in the UK. And so these commentators, lamenting what they saw as the intrusion of secular forces into the reproductive realm, were writing long after the biotechnology revolution had become established.” (p165)
Some Christians with insights into the scientific issues had been writing on IVF long before these negative reactions in 1984, but their contributions had failed to gain the attention of theologians and church leaders. The result was that acknowledged spokespeople for Christian churches, as well as some theologians, provided responses that claimed to be biblically-based but did not take account of the writings of scientists within their own Christian communities. Why is so little notice taken of the scientists in our midst?
First, scientists are ignored, including those who are Christians, because the whole of the scientific endeavor is treated with suspicion by many theologians and church leaders. While science for its own sake may not be viewed as negatively as this, it is not thought to have any contribution to make to the lives and aspirations of Christians. What this is saying is that there is no place in theology for any scientific input. Biblical perspectives are sufficient to guide Christians through the maze of contemporary decision-making.
No matter which of these answers is adopted, the end-result is the same. The work of scientists is of limited relevance for present-day Christians, either individually or in churches. Consequently, there is no need to be proactive in learning about the sort of biomedical technologies that are in the pipeline. But life is not this simple. Once these same technologies burst onto the scene as realistic procedures of potential use to ordinary people, their thrust – scientific, clinical, social and even theological – becomes evident for all to see. This is when some within the churches object that we are on the road to demeaning all that we hold dear as the followers of Christ.
What is the nature of these objections? If the details of the science have been ignored, what ‘theological/scientific’ arguments remain? Since the biblical writers are unable to speak directly to contemporary biomedical issues, objections to them cannot be framed solely by biblical thinking. The approach adopted by many writers is to rely upon generalizations, leading to opposition to developments such as genetic engineering, eugenics, and cloning. The reasons, we are told, is because these amount to ‘humans playing God’, or they involve the production of ‘designer babies.’ For many Christians the unacceptability of any such approach is clinched by emphasis upon the sacredness of human life; this, in turn, throws grave doubt on the legitimacy of manipulating human embryos and/or genes.
Against this background the scene is set for rejecting many facets of biomedical technology, and therefore the need for any interest in details of these technologies. All too readily, it comes to be assumed that the biomedical sciences have no contribution to make to applied Christian thinking, since at best they are misleading and at worst hostile to faithful Christian living. But what happens when individual church members are confronted with one of the applications in the clinic? What do they do and how do they act as responsible followers of Christ? They are confronted with a predicament: to decide whether to use or not to use a particular procedure since to do so will involve them in ‘playing God’ and/or producing a ‘designer baby’.
In my view this type of predicament should never occur since it does not stem from a faithful outworking of fundamental Christian precepts. The generalizations on which it is based are deeply unhelpful since they are no more than vague assertions about the problems associated with genetic engineering, eugenics, cloning, and the like. Each of these terms requires unpacking as to what it means, the techniques it embraces, and how it relates to actual scientific understanding today. Standard objections like "playing God" and aversion to "designer babies" are no more than labels repeatedly used to denigrate whole areas of science and scientific activity. Christians, with their commitment to truth and honesty, should never be satisfied with such approaches that do an injustice to both biblical thinking and scientific integrity.
It is only when Christian churches and their leaders shun these apparently slick answers that they will want to know what the latest scientific developments amount to, and how they impact upon those in their congregations. It is only then that they will be proactive and will be interested in what is emerging from laboratories and how people of faith should approach them. They will also want to know whether new practices and vistas could have an influence on aspects of biblical interpretation.
But, someone will say, there is no way in which busy pastors have either the time or the expertise to understand, let alone keep up with, current trends in the biomedical technologies. This is perfectly true, and this is where scientists with relevant expertise enter the picture. For as long as these scientists in our churches are sidelined, the situation will not change. There will be no need for Christians to be proactive in learning about the biomedical technologies, and certainly no need to show the slightest interest in where they are going. For me this is a tragedy and the quicker it stops the better for all – Christians and outsiders.
How though can scientists contribute? Only by occupying significant roles in decision-making bodies of churches on bioethical issues. By this I mean core roles in thinking through the theological consequences of current scientific developments as they influence how we live and act as the followers of Christ. Scientists invited to serve in this capacity need to be conversant with the appropriate cutting-edge science and be prepared to follow wherever it may lead. Nothing less than this will serve as the basis for constructive theological-scientific dialogue. We all have a great deal to learn from each other, and all of us have our blind spots and our points of weakness. What we do not want are people, including scientists, who come with neat pre-packaged answers that ignore the mounting scientific evidence in one area after another.
Christians have nothing to fear from the truth, wherever this may be found. The biomedical future is exciting, if only we will acquaint ourselves with what it has to offer. The genetic modification of embryos, ‘in womb’ stem cell trials, the use of brain implants to alleviate the symptoms of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, the ever-expanding outcomes from the human genome project (HGP), the realms of personalized and regenerative medicine, just to name a few. Christians ignore such trends at their peril, since they cannot remain isolated from them, and they should not wish to do so. We are all affected, since revolutions in cancer diagnosis and treatment are taking place; the way in which science is carried out is being changed for ever, and so is the way in which medicine is being done.
We are living in the midst of a revolution, and Christians should be excited because they can contribute to the thinking and ethical debate that are accompaniments of this revolution. But, and this is a big but, Christian thinking has to be informed by the science and by theologically-based ethical thinking that is itself informed by the science. The answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is categorically ‘yes’. Unless some of us are proactive and unless other Christians are willing to take seriously the outcome of our learning, the church will be impoverished.
(1) D Gareth Jones, In vitro fertilization and the destruction of embryos, PSCF 67: 163-174, 2015.
Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor, Bioethics and Department of Anatomy, University of Otago.
An expert on neurobiology, he also has written widely in the field of bioethics. Dr. Jones is a graduate of University College, London, where he earned his undergraduate degrees in science and medicine. He has been a visiting professor at both the University of Iowa and the New College for Advanced Christian Studies in Berkeley and a visiting research fellow at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. He was also the acting director of the Bioethics Research Centre at the University of Otago for one year.
The author of more than 205 research papers, Gareth Jones has contributed chapters to forty-one books, and is the author of twenty-six others. His most recent book, Speaking for the Dead: Cadavers in Biology and Medicine (Ashgate Publishing/Dartmouth Publishing, 2000), explores clinical, medical, ethical, and legal issues related to the use of human cadavers in scientific research. Dr. Jones has recently completed the third edition of a text entitled Medical Ethics, a volume he wrote with Alastair Campbell and Grant Gillett, which will be published by Oxford University Press. His current book projects include studies of synapses in the central nervous system, anatomy education, and cloning.. Gareth Jones is Emeritus Professor of Anatomy at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand