Taking, Making and Faking Life: a Christian Approach to Bioethics (a book review).

Modern medicine poses ethical dilemmas for Christians. Controversial issues like abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, cloning and genetic engineering challenge Christian views of morality and human dignity. But how are followers of Jesus supposed to make decisions about health care and life and death?

Christian Bioethics was written to provide guidance for pastors, health care professionals and families. C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, and D. Joy Riley, MD conduct a dialogue on a range of topics. Mitchel is Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University and Riley is physician specializing in Internal Medicine and the director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics. Together they frame the issues, discuss relevant scriptures and share their suggestions of how Christians ought to respond.

Mitchell and Riley argue for a return to the Hippocratic and Christian tradition of medicine. They urge physicians to heal  not harm and promote respect for the dignity of human persons. Their ethical discussion ranges from Taking Life (abortion and euthanasia) to Making Life ( Infertility and reporductive technologies, organ donation, cloning and animal-human hybrids) to faking/remaking life (aging and life extending technologies). The two of them are adept at framing the issue and limiting what they are talking about. They also say some thoughtful stuff. I particularly enjoyed their discussion on dying and their reference to both the Bible and to the Christian tradition. Quite a lot has been written on the topic of ‘dying well’ and Mitchell and Riley bring things together in a winsome and relevant manner.

Rather than sharing their thoughts on every issue, I would like to share what I found most helpful. I think the biggest value of the book is their ethical framework. On pages 41-2 they layout the process for medical ethical decision making:

  1. Define the ethical issue or problem
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Pray for Illumination by the Holy Spirit.
  4. Glean the medical data on the issue
    • What is the diagnosis?
    • What are the available treatments?
    • What are the possible outcomes
    • Are there complications?
    • Are there implications for spouse, family members, or others?
    • What precisely is the moral question(s) to be answered?
  5. Glean the Scriptural data on the question, identifying the biblical issue:
    •  Precepts or Commands
    • Principles
    • Examples
  6. Study the scriptural instruction carefully:
    1. What does the text say?
    2. What does the text mean?
    3. What is the genre?
    4. What are the literary style and organization?
    5. What definitions and grammar are significant?
    6. What is the context?
    7. What are the overall theme, purpose and historical significance
    8. Apply the biblical instruction to formulate a potential answer.
  7. Engage in dialogue with the Christian community.
  8. Study the views of the church down through the ages
  9. Formulate a decision. (41-2)

This method delineates the approach that Mitchell and Riley attempt throughout this book. I really appreciated the care by which they approached the issue and sought out the wisdom of scripture with hermeneutic sensitivity. They make judicious use of the Bible. I am in general agreement with their conclusions (pro life, human dignity and trust in God) but I think this hermeneutic piece is the most  helpful, especially since neither is a specialist in theology or biblical literature.

One small criticism is that Mitchell and Riley claim this book is a ‘guide for pastors, health care professionals and families.’ I can readily see how pastors and families would benefit. I think health care professionals would to, but they spend too much time explaining medical terms, issues and procedures in dumbed-down layman terms for people in the discipline. I think most people who work in healthcare would find these parts of the book overly simple.  I would think a more technical volume would probably be of more value for those in health care.

I am happy to have this book as part of my pastoral library (alongside other books like Shuman and Volck’s Reclaiming the Body). It does a good job of connecting the Bible to contemporary life issues. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

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