Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Matters of Life and Death- Part 4

Having spent considerable time exploring the underlying cultural assumptions at work in the field of bio-ethics, as well as laying the biblical foundations of what it is to be human, Wyatt now turns his attention to a diverse range of bio-ethical dilemmas which include:
• Reproductive technology
• Fetal screening
• Stem cell research
• Abortion
• Care of a dying baby
• Euthanasia & assisted suicide

I can’t commend his discussions on these bio-ethical issues highly enough. As I read those chapters I was challenged, rebuked, encouraged, saddened and thankful… sometimes all at once! All I can say is, buy the book and read it!

However, here in our last post for this series I want to look at an overview of just one of the dilemmas he addresses – reproductive technology, and particularly IVF.

Wyatt starts by reminding us that the way in which we speak about the ethical considerations of reproductive technology is just as important as what we actually say. His emphasis on the personal pain of infertility and childlessness reminds us just how important it is for us to enter into the experience of people who are hurting.

He then takes us through a brief overview of the development of IVF and an easy to understand explanation of IVF procedures, before turning our minds to some of the questions, implications and complications that it raises.

For Wyatt, the rubber really hits the road when we examined the ongoing bio-ethical implications of advances in reproductive technology. These include:
• Whether a ‘spare embryo’ (i.e.. an embryo created via IVF but then stored rather than inserted into the mother’s womb) should be used for research purposes. (I was personally shocked to discover that in 2008 legislation was passed in the UK allowing for the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for scientific purposes!)
• How do we decide who and what a parent is, now that it is possible for a baby to have three different mothers (a mother who donates the egg, a mother into whose womb the embryo is inserted, and a mother who becomes the primary caregiver after birth) and two different fathers (a sperm donor and then a primary care giver father after birth)?
• Significant advancements in diagnostic testing means that where an embryo (prior to insertion into the womb) was originally tested in order to detect devastating genetic disorders, now they are also being tested for a wide range of late onset adult conditions such as susceptibility to breast cancer, and often destroyed as a result.
• Given that there are now thousands upon thousands of embryos stored in liquid nitrogen all around the world, how are we to think about these beings? Are they merely bundles of cells akin to tissue biopsies? Or are they people to whom we owe a duty of care and protection?

In light of all these complex and emotive bio-ethical implications of reproductive technology, Wyatt asks ‘What is the appropriate Christian perspective on reproductive technology?’

In order to answer this question he describes humans as living masterpieces of God that reflect His meticulous design, purpose and concept. However, he goes on to say that our sinfulness means that we are now flawed masterpieces. What then is our responsibility to one another as a human community? Wyatt argues that we are called to act as art preservers or restorers so that, as much as possible, we protect the masterpieces from further harm and attempt to restore them in line with the original artist’s intentions.

Applying this ethic of art restoration to reproductive technology, Wyatt writes than in his view IVF, which is used to assist an infertile couple to have their own genetically related child, may be regarded as a form of restorative technology.

However, using this metaphor of preservation and restoration of the masterpiece, Wyatt also writes that there is some situations in which he thinks IVF is not biblically appropriate. These include:
• The creation of spare embryos (i.e.. persons) which will not be inserted into the womb and given a chance for life
• Surrogacy, which he argues is at risk of changing the Creator’s original design for parenthood
• Embryo and sperm donation, which he argues generates a profound ambiguity of the baby as a physical expression between the unique love of a man and a woman.

At this point you may find yourself in sharp disagreement with some of Wyatt’s conclusions above. And so as we bring this series of posts to a close, let me quote Wyatt’s last words in this chapter (as well as encourage you to read this chapter – and all the others in his book! – for yourself).

I am in no position to criticize those who come to other conclusions. I, and my wife, have been blessed with the gift of parenthood. How can I possibly empathize with the pain of childlessness? It is not for me to judge those who feel emotionally compelled to embark on the technological approach to making babies. And yet it seems that sometimes God calls individuals, in Oliver O’Donovan’s words, to ‘accept exclusion from the created good as the necessary price of a true and unqualified witness to it’. By refraining from reproductive technology, a childless couple may bear witness to God’s creation order while having to pay the price of exclusion from part of the blessings of that order. As a Christian community, we should learn to recognise and honour the painful sacrifice which such couples make. (Pg 106)

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