Jerusalem and Athens Forum: last updated 07/21/2009

Broadening Bioethics: from Defense to Advocacy

By Jenna Breitbarth

When thinking about contemporary bioethics, images of Franken-people and plastic surgeons immediately spring to mind. Church discussions and debates in Christian academia have created an automatic aversion to creative sciences like those commonly associated with bioethics, and, in many cases, for good reason. Contemporary debate has often blurred the line between the creation and the Creator as modern science seems to bring us closer and closer to the reality of genetic therapy and reproductive engineering.

Many Christians have pondered the implications of such technology for the biblical precedent of Imago Dei and specific creation in Psalm 139, and these thoughts have been integral to many Christians' understanding of the role of technology. Most discussion has begun and ended with individual-level analysis. As Christians, however, I believe we must take a look back. Though the ethical questions of modern science demand much from the Church as a moral compass, we have allowed our vision of ethics in science to follow a narrow and limited discussion. What I will suggest is the necessity to broaden Christian discussion of bioethics beyond petri-dish babies to broader socioeconomic and developmental concerns. 

In the heated discussion between the pews and the lab, we Christians often get lost in the narrow concerns of developed-world ethics. We become victims of the 90/10 gap: in discussing the issues of bioethics today, 90 percent of discussion centers on issues that affect only 10 percent of the world's population (Rennie and Mupenda). As we in the developed world discuss the morality of prenatal gender selection, the other 90 percent are discussing infant mortality and malnutrition in children. With the bias in discussion come similar biases in funding and research; as most discovery is market-driven, the demand for progressive findings in genetic engineering is undoubtedly going to exceed that spent on the concerns of developing-world research. Though the nature of market funding will consequently and necessarily flow to these developed-world concerns, we as Christians must examine this emphasis and its ethical implications.

The past 10 years have seen a broadening of the so-called evangelical political agenda, and this broadening should continue to the realm of bioethics. Should we as Christians speak on science only when it relates to genetic modification and prenatal selection? Many American Christians have moved from a reactive to a proactive stance in the public square, and this has its obvious extension in the realm of science. Though we should not ignore the obvious ethical issues that surround popular science, we cannot get swallowed up with the political battle and lose sight of the millions of others who only dream about having the advanced debates we in the United States engage.

What does the Imago Dei mean for those outside of the petri-dish debates? We were created in the image of God: we, in America, and our brothers and sisters abroad. The Creator endowed the creation with the opportunity to live life, and to live it abundantly.  In the developed world we can and should discuss the efficacy and adequacy of bioethics to help attain this goal, but a deeper issue is at stake. Lack of access to sanitation and sufficient health care are barriers to achieving this abundant life for a large percentage of the human population. Christian advocates must remember that the image of God is not only tarnished through excess genetic engineering but through lack of access to basic life necessities. The "crusade" must not just be about the image of God in fetuses in the developed world, but rather must be a crusade against all that inhibits the full exemplification of the image of God.

We cannot control the flow of money from one research institution to another. However, we can redirect the conversations at our dinner tables, in our community groups, and at our churches towards a more wholistic discussion about a Christian response to bioethics. Our focus—in public and private—reveals our priorities. By broadening our definition of ethics in science we can reach through and beyond issues of personal autonomy and engineering to questions of developmental opportunity. Imaging God through responsible stewardship as creatures and not creators, as well as through advocacy for the opportunity for abundant life for all people, is the distinct call for Christians of our time. Let us respond.