Reprinted with permission, Ethics and Medicine (2000)16:3, 65-66.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come
by C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.
British philosopher and science writer, Colin Tudge, has recently said of cloning,
If people do not get to grips with such research then the new biotechnologies that are beginning to Influence our lives so profoundly will Forever occupy some esoteric, elevated niche, effectively out of sight. That would be a huge pity, for cultural and political reasons. On the whole, the world at large deploys science and technology with little finesse-we seem to suffer many of their ill effects, without properly reaping many possible benefits-and we will never do better unless people, meaning voters, consumers, and citizens, have a better feel for what is going on. (Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell, and Colin Tudge, The Second Creation: The Age of Biological Control by the Scientists who Cloned Dolly [London: Hodder Headline, 2000.])
One could not agree more with Tudge. The stuff of biotechnological medicine and the bioethics which ought to be related to it should be of interest to everyone because everyone has a stake in the progress of science and its implications for the future of humanity. Too long has bioethics been the realm of so-called experts who wield the jargon with gladiatorial style. Too long has bioethics been the vehicle of making laws which few citizens understand or affirm.
An idea has come to fruition that has potential to, as Tudge puts it, give people ‘a better feel for what is going on’. This summer The Center for Bioethics in the Church (CBC) was formed in Berkeley, California. According to its promotional material, the CBC ‘desires to partner with the local church to provide bioethical training, education, and information that is customized to and delivered for the specific needs of each local church.’ Toward that end the CBC will offer major conferences, one-day seminars, specific talks, and individual and family consultation.
Why is this project worthy of notice in the pages of this journal? Not the least reason is that several individuals associated with this journal serve as the board of references for the CBC (including Nigel Cameron, John Kilner, and myself). Speaking for the others, we feel some obligation to promote good ideas, and this is a good idea in our estimation.
Furthermore, the person leading this project is a person of integrity and competence. Jennifer Lahl holds degrees both in nursing and bioethics and is fully capable of reaching the goals of her project. Together with her colleagues she will no doubt provide a much-needed resource in that part of the United States.
Perhaps one of the most important reasons to mention the CBC (if not the most important reason) is that one hopes it will encourage imitation. That is to say, this is an idea whose time has come. Churches should consider supporting the establishment of many centers like the Berkeley CBC.
For the last decade especially, bioethics centers have been springing up around the world to serve the needs of a largely academic constituency. If the explosion of biotechnology is teaching us anything it is that bioethics is not the domain of academics alone. Sooner or later everyone of us will have to make decisions about the development, use, or continuance of some new medical technology. It therefore behooves us, out of pure self-interest if nothing else, to ‘get to grips’ with these technologies. Even more importantly, these technologies will impact the future. Will they enhance the quality of life of future generations or will they be used against those whose quality of life is not deemed to warrant their benefits? Will they remake human beings in the image of technocrats or will they respect and serve the dignity of human beings made in God’s image?
Surely in some measure the answer to these questions will be determined by how well each of us and our children are educated and equipped to assess these technologies. These decisions must not be left to a few technocrats; they belong appropriately to us all.
But why is the CBC aimed at the church? Because the church has a coherent, cohesive worldview which may be brought to bear on these technologies, it makes sense to go to the churches. Because the church has learned through painful lessons the importance of respecting human dignity, it is wise to go to the churches. Because the church is composed of persons who impact and are impacted by these technologies, it is important to go to the churches. Because the church represents a body of individuals who can engage policymakers and those who direct the scientific and medical enterprise, it is prudent to go to the churches.
Another set of reasons why the church needs the CBC is because, while these other reasons may be true, churches have nevertheless been slow to grapple with the issues and the intersection of medicine, technology, and ethics and yet are forced to make decisions which they are ill prepared to make.
For instance, clergy find themselves increasingly asked to counsel families about the use of artificial reproductive technologies. As genetic screening and therapy become more widely available, difficult choices will have to be made. With few exceptions, ministers still have very little training in bioethics. Thus, a resource like the CBC can render a profound educational service right in its own community.
Moreover, physicians, nurses, and other health professionals often find themselves in need of tools for ethics and theological reflection. In partnership with the local churches, the CBC can assist in equipping those professionals to think Christianly about the practice of medicine.
We wish the Center for Bioethics in Church well and hope others will follow their example. Those who wish to know more about the center may contact Jennifer Lahl at The Center for Bioethics in the Church, P.O. Box 20760, Oakland, CA 94620, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or they may visit the centre’s website at www.thecbc.org.
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