Monday, November 27, 2006

The Bioethics of Bethlehem

As we enter Advent, it may be worth pausing in our mad seasonal rush to reflect on the significance of Emmanuel, or "God with us," from Matthew 1:23.

For Christians, this means that God sent His Son in human form, to save mankind from sin and condemnation. Yet we seldom consider the amazing detail that Jesus was Himself fully man from the very beginning, which means that He started His earthly life as an embryo.

Doctor Luke records in his gospel (1:26-45) the joyous announcement by the angel Gabriel that Mary would be with child. Just a few weeks later, Mary visits her cousin, six months pregnant with John, who would become the Baptist. When Mary greets Elizabeth, John could not restrain his excitement, though yet unborn. He leaped in his mother's womb in the presence of the embryonic Jesus! Nigel Cameron has said it well:

[He] was not merely the tiniest of humans, he was the cosmic creator, the Word by whom the Godhead has spoken into existence the vastness of time and space. And the One who will one day be our Judge.
The incarnation is the ultimate testimony to the value of of all human beings, even those not yet born. At Christmas, this is truly good news.

Christianity Today article:

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

DNA as Destiny?

Since the completion of the Human Genome Project, there seems to be a growing sense that everything, including our behavior, can be explained by our genes. According to this idea, there's a gene (or genes) for addiction, for sexual orientation, even for altruism. Now that we know the human genetic code, we can understand everything about our nature.

Recent work in epigenetics is undermining such determinism. Epigenetics is the study of those influences that act “over and above” genetics. For example, one study showed certain genetic mutations that normally lead to obesity in rats can be turned off by a modification in diet. The same amounts of food were given, but expression of the abnormal gene was blocked by changing the type of food.

In another study performed in mice, more intimate behavior of mothers towards their offspring led to increases in the size of the hippocampal region of the brain, a change that would normally have been ascribed to genetics alone.

The point is that DNA is not destiny. In the words of one writer, “Free will is not only real; to a yet undetermined extent, it can override DNA.” The implications for ethics and behavior are obvious. In contrast to the reductionism of secular science, free will is not an illusion, and our choices matter.

Original article:

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Abandoning the Prime Directive?

In his Epidemics, the great healer Hippocrates gave this advice: 'As to diseases, make a habit of two things -- to help, or at least to do no harm.' The Roman physician Galen said it more compactly, as 'primum non nocere,' meaning, 'first of all, do no harm.'

Since the era of Hippocrates, the keystone of medicine has always been that physicians can be relied on to do their best for their patients. To borrow a phrase from Star Trek, this is the 'Prime Directive' of medicine: doctors are always to heal, never to harm.

Apparently, that may change, if the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology has its way. As reported in the Scotsman news service: "The College is arguing for 'active euthanasia' to be considered for the overall good of parents, sparing them the emotional burden and financial hardship of bringing up the sickest babies."

That a professional medical society would seriously make such a statement is rather disturbing. It is a sad commentary on the way the medical practice has changed since World War II. Instead of focusing on the goal of healing, modern medicine emphasizes relief of suffering. This subtle change tends to diminish the patient as person, and instead targets the disease process itself, to the detriment of the healing profession and society as a whole.

At least there are some voices of reason in the UK these days. Neonatologist John Wyatt has said it well: "Intentional killing is not part of medical care . . . [O]nce you introduce the possibility of intentional killing into medical practice you change the fundamental nature of medicine."

In the midst of the wonderful technological advances in health care, physicians must never abandon their Prime Directive.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Brave New Fathers

As a follow-up to Aaron's blog last week about reproductive tech, I came across an article in the LA Times. The story raises profoundly disturbing questions about how society views reproduction and having babies, and crosses the line into the chilling realm of eugenics.

The news article starts out with Chad and David, a gay couple in Fairfax, Virginia, sorting through possible ‘egg donors.’ Chad likes #694, who scores high in academics and music, but David prefers #685, who has the edge in athletic ability and dance.

Here’s the plan: the two men hope to have a child through gestational surrogacy. This will involve paying a carefully-chosen woman to provide the eggs, since they want to “exert some control over the child’s genetic makeup.” These eggs, combined with the men’s own sperm, would produce several embryos by in vitro fertilization. Some of the embryos would be implanted into another woman, also paid for her services, who would carry the baby (or babies) to term. In this way, Chad and David hope to become fathers.

Do you have any questions about this kind of arrangement? Here are some of my concerns:
  • Setting aside any moral objections to homosexual relationships, research has shown that children need both male and female role models for proper development.
  • According to Chad and David, this “felt more like catalog shopping than human reproduction.” It seems like human beings and their parts have become commodities to be bought and sold on the open market.
  • Selecting one person for reproduction over another based on genetics denies the ethical principle of equality of persons. Such eugenics ideas have discriminated against the poor and disadvantaged, and history has taught us we pay a high price.
  • Speaking of eugenics, what of the embryos that are not implanted? Surely those with genetic defects will be discarded, violating the sanctity of human life. At the very least, leftover embryos will be frozen, leaving them with an uncertain future.
  • What of society at large? Have we so instrumentalized procreation that children are more a ‘product’ than actual sons and daughters?

My thanks to Stephen Grabill ( for bringing this article to my attention.

Original LA Times article:,0,5016763.story