Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Gilbert Meilaender, 1996)

One of the temptations of our modern age is to leave specialized areas of life to “experts” in that field. Most of the people who use a computer every day, for example, don’t bother learning to repair them—such knowledge is left to computer technicians. Besides, our time is limited, and having to make sense of computer manuals simply does not sound like a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. It brings to mind the comment Michael Novak once made (on a completely different topic) concerning the engine room of an ocean liner. When you are on a cruise you want it to run smoothly, he said, but you certainly do not want to have to spend much time there. So, we are content to let the “experts” earn a living dealing with things we “lay” folk are not interested in or have time for. This division of society into “expert” and “lay” populations works so well when we are dealing with technology we might be tempted to extend the arrangement into other areas. Such as, perhaps, medical ethics. We can leave that convoluted subject—except for abortion and euthanasia, of course—to people in medicine. But that is a temptation we must resist for at least two reasons.

First, the advances of medical technology means that the vast majority of us will more than likely be called upon to make hard choices for ourselves or for someone we love. And if we wait until the moment of choice to begin thinking about ethics involved, chances are we will not be equipped to make distinctly Christian choices. And second, even if in God’s providence we are not called upon to make such hard choices, the choices being made in our culture, as in the case of abortion and euthanasia, are shaping the society in which we must live. Attempting to withdraw from the discussion is both short-sighted and a denial that here, too, Christ is Lord. The gospel is good news for the hard choices that confront believers and unbelievers alike in modern medicine.

We recommend Bioethics: A Primer for Christians to you. If you have read little on the topic, you will be hard pressed to find a better introduction. Dr. Meilaender is a wonderful teacher and clear writer, and as professor of theological ethics at Valparaiso University, knows his subject well. After an initial chapter in which he outlines the key “background beliefs” the Christian brings to the subject, Meilaender goes on to explore procreation, abortion, genetic therapy, prenatal screening, suicide, euthanasia, treatment refusal, organ donation, and medical experimentation on humans. If you are in medicine, or well acquainted with medical ethical issues, you will want to add Bioethics to your library. Not only will you find opportunity to loan it—for it is a fine “primer”—but because Meilaender is careful to think in distinctly Christian categories you will find it a helpful review of foundational principles.

“I write as a Christian for other Christians who want to think about these issues,” Meilaender writes.

Anyone is, of course, welcome to “listen in” and consider what the world looks like from this angle of vision, but the discussion is not aimed at “anyone.” It is aimed at those who name as Lord the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and who believe that this Lord lived as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. The two testaments of Christian Scripture bear witness to this God and authoritatively (even if often ambivalently) shape the vision of Christians when they turn to the contemporary concerns of bioethics. It is obvious, of course, as a matter of empirical fact, that not all Christians agree with the judgments I make in this book. But when I attempt here to write Christian ethics, I do not mean that I have taken a survey of the opinions of Christians or written a history of their views. Rather, I have tried to say what we Christians ought to say in order to be faithful to the truth that has claimed us in Jesus.

If you wish a preview to the book, edited versions of two chapters have been published as articles. Chapter 8 on decision making appeared as “Christian Thinking About Advance Medical Directives” in The Christian Century (September 11-18, 1996; pp. 854-857), and chapter 9 on organ transplantation appeared as “Second Thoughts About Body Parts” in First Things (April 1996, No. 62; pp. 32-37).

Read Bioethics: A Primer for Christians as a superb example of Christian discernment. Read it to think through medical ethics from the perspective of the biblical world and life view. Reflect on where you disagree with Dr. Meilaender so you can know clearly what you believe and why. And read it so you can be better prepared to live and die Christianly when the hard choices of modern medicine present themselves.

Book Reviewed
Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1996) 118 pp. + index.