Part III – Central Themes for an Evangelical Framework
Chapter 10 – The Sanctity of Life in the Twenty-first Century: An Agenda for Homo sapiens in the image of God.
By Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Research of bioethics at Chicago-Kent College of Law (Illinois Institute of Technology) and president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future.
Cameron observes that life is becoming increasingly complex and technology is challenging us to reflect on moral questions we have never had to face before. We try to deal with an array of problems one-by-one but he believes these issues eventually come down to one question: What does it mean to be human?
At the fulcrum of every human culture lies a set of assumptions about human nature – what it means to be a member of the tribe. (214)
The difficulty is precisely that they are ubiquitous assumptions and not reasoned values. Change is challenging our assumptions, forcing us to consciously address what it means to be a part of the tribe.
Cameron believes that an appropriate Biblical anthropology has its roots in two biblical doctrines: creation and incarnation. He believes that Christians need to rediscover the worldview that maintains human beings have human dignity because they are in the image of God. He also maintains that Christ incarnate came in the form of a blastocyst, an early embryo, and sanctified human nature at all stages of its development.
The Bioethics Agenda
Cameron briefly describes the evolution of bioethics from medical ethics. Medical ethics largely addresses the ethics of medical practitioners. Bioethics is a multi-disciplinary enterprise that integrates thinking from a variety perspectives. However, he writes that contemporary bioethics has largely ignored medical ethics and,
The focus of contemporary bioethics is largely on the development of procedures to enable people to make private decisions – there is little interest in forging a consensus on the basis of commonly held truth. Moreover, the field operates through articles and papers, conferences, and ad hoc centers and has produced few monographs and academic departments. It carries little baggage, historical or institutional, and that absence profoundly conditions the character of its discussions. (216)
He goes on to note that while mainline Protestants have engaged bioethics, they have in general “accepted the broad terms of the secular writers who lead the field.” (217) Roman Catholic scholars are all over the map. However, evangelicals are largely absent from the discussion.
From here he turns to three categories of medical ethics.
Bioethics 1: Abortion, Euthanasia, and Experimentation
Cameron notes that while abortion sparked a belated political response among evangelicals it has not translated into substantive discourse about the underlying bioethics issues at evangelical colleges and seminaries. Issues like embryonic cell research have largely been cast as a subset of the abortion debate focusing on questions of viability. The larger context is missing. He suggests that the debate has moved from whether or not an unborn life is human life to whether or not life is sacred.
Cameron interacts with the thinking of “radical philosopher” Peter Singer who he says “…seeks a basis for the preservation of the lives of (most) born persons” other than the sanctity of human life. (218) Cameron observes that historical evils like slavery emerged in tension with the idea of imago Dei, the image of God. He doesn’t elaborate here but slavery in Europe was de facto abolished by about 1000 C.E. The Roman Church had been baptizing slaves and banned enslavement of Christians through a series of edicts. Slavery re-emerged with Spain’s early 15th Century conquest of the Canary Islands. It expanded with the conquest of the Americas and Africa by Spain and other European powers. The Europeans defined the natives as sub-human and therefore slavery was acceptable. Rediscovery of imago Dei for enslaved people was slavery’s undoing.
Singer’s strategy is to define what makes one distinctively human and use that as the standard for arbitrating what is human. He includes characteristics like rationality, the capacity to communicate and self-consciousness. Cameron observes that “We may celebrate these features of human maturity; it is something quite else to regard their denial as evidence of human absence.” (219) Also,
His [Singer's] exclusion of other features and experiences that are typically human, and indeed morally relevant, such as infancy and age with their dependence, and handicap and sickness with their challenge to the caring community, destroys the credibility of a case that depends on reducing the human race to a selected group. (219)
Furthermore, Singer maintains that arguing intrinsic significance for humans is “speciesism.”
Moreover, it is in fact Singer whose method closely parallels the racist. For the racist takes human beings – the human race – and on grounds that he or she considers “morally relevant” (skin pigmentation; ethnicity) determines that some member of this species shall be treated with human dignity while others shall not. The racist divides the human race down the middle, according to his or her own extrinsic criteria. That is exactly Singer’s method. (220)
Cameron ends by again pointing to the growing complexities and the narrow engagement by evangelicals.
Bioethics 2: Cloning and Genetics
Cameron sees this category dealing with the manipulation and manufacture of human life. It is “…focused on the use of technology to control, design, and perhaps improve human being at the fundamental level of genetics.” (222)
Human beings creating human beings results in a great irony.
This act is stupefying in its scope. Humankind simultaneously claims the role of God while being reduced to playing the part of a mere thing, the dust of the earth out of which we were made and to which we foolish creatures choose to return ourselves; to become, in President Bush’s recent phrase, commodity rather than creation. (221)
Quoting C. S. Lewis, Cameron notes that what appears to be “man’s triumph over nature” is in fact “nature’s triumph over man.” Cameron writes,
“…there is emerging a fresh paradigm in which it is recognized that taking a human life made in God’s image may not in fact be as serious, in his eyes, as making a human being in our own.” (222)
Bioethics 3: A Posthuman Future?
Cameron offers one paragraph about this third category dealing with the emergence of cybernetic technology, merging machines with the human organism. Here he is mostly descriptive as he warns about the ethical challenges it will bring.
The Challenge to Evangelicals
Until now the depth of our imaginative depravity had to be content with new forms of killing, the legacy of Cain and Abel. We confront now a new kind of sin, a fresh fulfillment of our conflicted fallen nature, the descendant of the Tower of Babel. This is our best opportunity to begin to frame public policy for biotechnology around an issue of high profile that has resonated with the public conscience. (223)
Our theological rationale is clear. Human beings are made in God’s image. The technological imperative that we read out of the “dominion mandate” in Genesis 1 lies in the context of the kind of being that God has made his human creatures to be. (224)
Cameron closes the chapter with George Bush’s statement “The Sanctity of Life in a Brave New World: A Manifesto on Biotechnology and Human Dignity.”
I thought Cameron did a good job of presenting his perspective on a massively complex issue. I would have loved for him to probe more in any number of directions but that was not the objective of the essay. I agree most readily with his observations that evangelicals, and I think a much broader spectrum of Christianity, has yet to come to grips with these issues.