How We Lost “Bioethics”… And How We Can Win It Back.
Dear Concerned Citizen,
Remember the anguished hand-wringing in the 50s over Who lost China? Well, the biggest question facing Americans today is: Who lost bioethics?
Because lost it we have. “Bioethics,” a made-up word from the early 70s, covers everything from abortion to euthanasia to stem cells and cloning. It’s the debate about medicine and ethics and biology and public policy.
It’s also a pseudo-profession, culled from the ranks of philosophers and docs and biology profs that gives them their 15 minutes of fame on network TV. Guru-in-chief is Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania and his wannabe successor Glenn McGee, whose six-figure book deal shows his star quality. Caplan is a charming man, smart, suave, and when I have debated him, sometimes given to surprising candor. One time an anchor translated my more measured terms and asked him if an egregious pro-cloning statement by Michael West (who claimed to have cloned the first US human embryos) was b*** s***. He had the decency to agree.
And he is influential. When the United Nations started its 3-year debate on human cloning I was invited to serve as bioethics adviser on the US delegation. Guess which American the UN itself invited to be the cloning “expert” who lectured representatives of every nation in the world as part of a five-member panel? Caplan.
Arthur Caplan is the quintessential face of contemporary bioethics. Yet he does not in any way represent the American people. How did bioethics get so out of whack with the people? How did it switch from a Hippocratic focus on the sanctity of life to a public relations department for whatever the biotech industry wants to do next?
In the wide-ranging book on The Secular Revolution (edited by Christian Smith, 2003), one chapter lets John H. Evans explain the bioethics story – how something so close to the hearts of religious Americans on such vital issues ended up almost entirely in the hands of the secular elite.
One central problem, of course, is that we walked out. There is no question that a chief agent of secularization in American culture has been “conservative” Christians. They have withdrawn from the fray faster than anyone has pushed them out. And there is no better example than in the field of bioethics. If here, where human life is most immediately at stake – and where we have deployed such energetic political and caring resources to the question of abortion – we have failed to develop expertise and leadership, is it a surprise that in other areas of the culture we keep sensing that we are losing it?
Let’s give two examples to make the point.
America is blessed with more than one hundred serious-minded, accredited, four-year Christian (basically evangelical) colleges – as well as many Catholic institutions. Back in the early 90s, I shared a luncheon presentation to the presidents of these evangelical schools with my friend, former Surgeon-General, C. Everett Koop. At that time not one evangelical school offered even a minor in bioethics – though almost all of them have pre-med students; and not one evangelical school had developed a grad program in the field. We pleaded with the presidents to prepare their students for the extraordinary opportunities of leadership in this emerging discussion of human life – especially those who were planning to go to med school. Now, more than a decade later, things have changed – but not much. One school has a minor. One school has a grad program. It just happens to be the school ( Trinity International University) where I taught back in the 90s and was able to press for these programs. In the world of evangelical higher education, no-one else has taken up the challenge.
Of course, this was really the challenge of the 70s. That’s when “bioethics” got off the ground, and the secularists were wide awake to their opportunities. Yet, three decades later, the evangelical community is still so focused on the symptom (abortion) that it can hardly spare a thought for the disease process (a secular bioethics, pushing secular assumptions about what it means to be human) that has led our culture to think in terms of human life in post-Christian terms. That may not sound so bad – but only if you are unconcerned about euthanasia, have never heard of stem cell research that destroys embryos, and have not been following the new technologies – which some people plan to use to remake human nature itself!
The second example is equally telling. In Washington, DC, where so much is decided, there are many think-tanks that devise policy and prepare people to shape the future of government in our land. There are liberal groups and conservative groups, and they and their staffs have far more influence on the future of this nation than most Americans know. Guess what! Among them all, there is not one whose chief concern is to focus Christian thinking on bioethics and the future of human nature. Not one. We have groups that share these concerns (like Wilberforce Forum and Family Research Council), and we have pro-life advocacy groups (chiefly the National Right to Life Committee). But a think tank? A center looking at the huge range of biopolicy issues? Not a sign.
There are plenty of other discouraging examples. Back in 1983 I started the first serious Christian bioethics journal (Ethics and Medicine), and more than two decades later it is still the only bioethics journal that takes a clear Christian view. A few years later, in my book The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates, I offered a model to Christians – to use the originally pagan Hippocratic Oath, which is still held in high esteem in medicine, as the basis for a public translation of Christian bioethics distinctives. Despite high praise from C. Everett Koop, Chuck Colson, Harold O.J. Brown, and Richard John Neuhaus, and a review in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, it has hardly been a best seller!
In truth, we have abandoned the battlefield. Way back in the early 70s, Paul Ramsey, Princeton professor and profound Christian thinker, sought to set the tone for the emerging bioethics agenda. Very few Christians have followed. The field of serious intellectual inquiry and policy making has been abandoned to the likes of Art Caplan. So we should hardly be surprised when we hear television “bioethicists” prating their contempt for the sanctity of life, when every effort the President makes to raise serious moral concerns on stem cells and cloning is dismissed as the work of the “religious right,” and when we are comprehensively out-maneuvered by the secular elite in every biopolicy issue.
These issues will define our future, and that of the race. They will dominate the moral agenda of the 21st century. Who lost bioethics? Well, we did. Time to go get it back!
And the way to begin is with the churches. This is where we have vast reservoirs of untapped resources; MDs, nurses, researchers, teachers – and pastors whose leadership will be the key to turning around a generation of neglect.
Just a few days ago I was invited to spend the day at Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven” Saddleback Community Church, in southern California. In the morning, the Center for Bioethics and Culture had arranged their latest “pastors’ briefing” to update church leaders on this vast agenda. In the evening, Saddleback pulled in hundreds of their people for one of the most stimulating meetings I can remember. Once I finished speaking, the questions had to be cut off after an hour and a half – incisive, engaged, on everything from embryos to living wills and nanotechnology. My message had been clear: God has called us to be 21st century Christians. We don’t need to politicize the church, just to teach people that as patients or relatives or citizens we will all engage these issues – and that this follows from our discipleship as night follows day.