A thought-provoking target article in the latest edition of The American Journal of Bioethics considers how Christian theological concepts might enrich secular bioethical discourse. Authors Michael McCarthy (Loyola University), Mary Homan (Medical College of Wisconsin) and Michael Rozier (Saint Louis University) argue that the Christian concepts of human dignity, sin, and the common good can bring analytical depth and clarity to discussions in a range of bioethical subfields, including debates clinical ethics, research ethics and public health ethics. In essence, they claim that “a Christian approach to bioethics can augment bioethical discourse by providing a thick theological description of the human person.”
The authors begin their article with a comment on the decline of dialogue between Christian moral theologians and secular bioethicists. Christian theologians had a significant impact on bioethics in its inception, though the influence of religious thought on bioethics has waned in recent years. The authors argue that this is due to both increasing secularism in society as well as a failure on the part of Christian ethicists to illustrate the relevance of Christian concepts for contemporary bioethics. This ‘communication breakdown’ is regrettable, and the authors express a desire to establish a new dialogue between Christian moral thought and secular bioethics.
To demonstrate the importance of Christian moral concepts, the authors provide a series of ethical vignettes from different subspecialties of bioethics, and consider how Christian moral thought might enrich our thinking about these issues. In research ethics, the authors argue that issues of injustice arise regularly, including problems with minorities either being excluded from research or being exploited in research. Theology, they contend, can enrich our understanding of the effects of structural injustice in the context of research ethics:
“theological bioethics argues for a critical reflection on what alternative choices need to be made to upset the power dynamic and disrupt the social sin embedded within the practice of biomedical research”.
In public health ethics, the authors note that public health experts often become preoccupied with utilitarian health goals, while failing to make space for individual interests in their framework. Related to this, they fail to prosecute the case for civic virtue and compliance with public health campaigns or orders:
“[Public health ethics] makes no claim as to why it is significant that human beings share lives together or why we create communities. This lack of a compelling reason for community leads to a variety of problems, including the challenges in the United States around vaccination”.
What is needed in public health ethics is a robust conception of the common good, whereby the good of individuals is conceptually linked to the good of society.
The authors conclude their article by noting that Christian view of humanity can provide a richer lens than standard bioethical principles through which to view contemporary issues:
“…a Christian anthropological vision of the human person centered on an understanding of human dignity, sin, and the common good provide a unique perspective to pursue the social ethics concerns raised by many secular bioethicists”.
The article is certainly a stimulating read, and it is admirable in its attempt to synthesise Christian ethical thought with the concerns of contemporary bioethics. Its diplomatic style, however, leads to certain glaring oversights — be they intentional or unintentional — in the discussion. The devil is in the details, as Wake Forest University bioethicist Nicholas Colgrove writes in a commentary:
“…Securing agreement on general claims (like “respect human beings”) is easy but securing agreement on the meaning of these claims is not. For instance, Christians who insist that all humans have dignity cannot accept that access to safe abortion is a matter of justice or means of protecting the vulnerable… Reflection on the actual Christian concept of “human dignity,” therefore, leaves secular bioethicists with two choices: Accept the Christian concept and revise dominant secular moral norms or deprive the Christian concept of its core content.”