In every era, men and women have been given the responsibility to be stewards of the world and its affairs. In our time, this task, having never been an easy one, has become even more difficult. We not only live in a pluralistic society, but also a highly technological one and the ethical dilemmas we face are, in some ways, unlike any others. In the twenty-first century, often dubbed the “biotech century”, questions of right and wrong have become inextricably linked to our widening awareness of our technological prowess- our gathering strength to affect mankind at the genetic level. These serious issues require a balanced response, one that supports the harnessing of the incredible capacities our world offers, but as good stewards, advocates the ethical use of those capacities for the benefit of mankind. As biotechnology becomes the new nexus of moral stewardship for our century, our obligation remains to make ethical decisions before God, not only for ourselves, but for every generation after us.
Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Ph.D., have done the Christian community a substantial service by editing a collection of essays, entitled Human Dignity in the Biotech Century, to aid in this process of staying well-informed. These essays present a Christian approach toward biotechnology and its moral concerns. Genetics, cybernetics, cloning and the public policy and legal needs of each area are addressed. The authors are diverse, including physicians, academics, scientists, and lawyers; from both Christian and secular circles who recognize the importance of collaboration as a means of effecting change.
The comprehensive range of issues addressed reflects the rapid pace with which biotech has developed, far beyond the early years of the abortion debate in the seventies. A thorough education is greatly needed, especially among Christians who oftentimes, are last to engage in cultural discussions out of a desire to protect the integrity of the faith. The need for action must come out of staying abreast of the current issues and Cameron notes this purpose in his introductory essay, “Christian Vision for the Biotech Century”: “The pro-life community needs to upgrade both its understanding of and commitment to questions that go beyond abortion and yet are of equal gravity to our conscience and our civilization in their threat to the sanctity of human life”. Though rightfully engaged in the abortion debate, a more well-rounded defense against newer issues is urgent.
Because the issue of cloning is nearest to the public consciousness, a few essays are devoted to describing the process of cloning in layman’s terms and outlining its ethical implications. The passage of Prop. 71, a bill designating taxpayer money for embryonic stem cell research, in California in 2004, has unfortunately proved the timeliness of the warnings by those committed to responsible bioethics. Yet the common charge of Luddism by critics is not one that can be substantiated within these pages; “The Sanctity of Life in a Brave New World” states in its manifesto: “We strongly favor work in biotechnology that will lead to cures for diseases and disabilities, and we are excited by the promise of stem cells from adult donors and other ethical avenues of research…we welcome all medical and scientific research that is firmly tethered to moral truth”.
Other essays address the impact of genetics where, among other concerns, the desire to patent genetic material for purposes of research makes men and women objects to be owned rather than autonomous, free individuals. C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., stresses this in his essay “The New Genetics and the Dignity of Humankind”: “Genetic technology may be used to relieve human suffering, treat human diseases and thereby protect human dignity; or it may be used in ways that erode our dignity and treat us as mere commodities, or even worse, refashion us in someone else’s image”. David Stevens, M.D., in his essay “Promise and Peril”, celebrates the potential benefits of genetics but also argues for reasonable parameters for an almost completely unregulated field.
Since the Christian community is most familiar with the pro-life debate surrounding abortion, a couple of essays discuss how the national discussion has changed since Roe v. Wade, and offer new strategies for the Christian community.
Overall, Human Dignity in the Biotech Century is an excellent book for those wanting to familiarize themselves with the current issues, and to gain a sense of the “big picture”. It is educational, sobering, and uplifting, too- the work that these authors are doing in their various vocations to advocate for responsible bioethics is exactly the right response. Finding the appropriate balance between ethical applications of biotech while not compromising the distinct, inviolable nature of human beings is part of the task of our generation.
Sandra Davis, Staff Writer, The Center for Bioethics and Culture
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