One of the unique aspects of Wyatt’s book is that he doesn’t assume his readers are familiar with the complex landscape of bioethics. Rather than launching us right into the middle of a shocking bioethical dilemma, he spends the first few chapters orienting us to this brave new world in which such ethical decisions exist.
One of his most helpful chapters identifies four fundamental themes at work in modern health care and society, in order to help the reader who has very little knowledge of the scientific arena (such as myself!) to understand the forces at work and the underlying assumptions in today’s bioethical discussions.
1. Modern science is very much concerned with understanding how biological processes work at the most fundamental, detailed level possible– that is, it encourages us to understand the whole by looking at the minute details of the parts. The problem we face, however, is that this ‘reductionist’ approach can actually lead us to think that the whole is really nothing more than the parts! The implication is that we come to see ourselves as merely biological machines with no real purpose in life beyond ensuring our genetic survival and replication (the premise of Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene).
2. The unparalleled advances of biotechnology in recent times have meant that science no longer merely aims to ‘describe the world, but also to control it’ (pg. 34). This, of course, has lead to a significant shift in the way we think about the painful reality of the human condition with all it’s frailty, sickness, ageing, and ultimately, even death. Why should we passively accept what is happening to our bodies when science now tells us we don’t have to?
3. Wyatt also points out that when it comes to matters of life and death patients have ever rising ‘consumer expectations’. For many, doctors have become biological ‘fix-it’ tradies, whilst the medical field now exists to help them realise their greatest desires. The implication of this is, of course, that when our expectations are not met, the result is all too often grief and even outrage. As Wyatt suggests, ‘Perhaps, before too long, selecting the best embryo will be seen as an essential part of responsible parenthood: ‘I owe it to myself and to my future child to give him or her the best possible genetic start in life’’ (pg. 38).
4. The rapid growth of biotechnology, the fact that people are living longer and the ever-increasing cost of ongoing research, means that our society also faces resource limitations when it comes to health economics. When health care becomes so important as to trump all other economic demands of the modern state, then death is often viewed as the most cost-effective solution. For example, why ‘waste’ health care resources on those who are unable to appreciate them (eg. individuals in a persistent vegetative state or unborn children who have been diagnosed with abnormalities), when it would be more economically viable to accept that the lives of these individuals should be brought to an end in order that the resources spent keeping them alive might be directed elsewhere?
5. Finally, Wyatt notes that bioethics has now become an adventure playground for philosophers such that it is now increasingly divorced from the real life experiences of doctors, nurses and their patients. One key philosophical foundation heavily at play is that of liberal individualism, which demands that citizens be entirely free to decide, what they think is right. The consequence is, of course, that whatever view we take about dilemmas such as abortion or euthanasia, we not only want the right to decide for ourselves but also the right to freely act for ourselves in light of our decision.
As I read through this chapter of Wyatt’s book I found myself nodding my head over and over again. To be honest I had had little conscious awareness of the way in which these themes were at play within our society. However, the more I read, the more I realised that they were! So much of the way we think today about medicine, science, bioethics – even what it is to be human – has indeed been moulded and shaped, to some degree or another, by these five factors.
Yet, as Christians, shouldn’t it be God’s word which shapes the way we think about this world… about what it is to be human?
That is where Wyatt takes us in his next chapter.