The beginning of life poses many ethical questions, whether it's abortion, embryonic stem cell research or in-vitro fertilization. But what about end of life issues? During this week's broadcast, John Stonestreet welcomes guest Paige Cunningham, who serves as Executive Director at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, as a fellow at the Institute for Biotechnology and the Human Future, a trustee at Baylor University and an adjunct professor at Trinity Law School. Cunningham, J.D., joins us to dig deep into the question of how Christians can make good decisions about one of the most difficult and murky subjects in modern life: dying.
According to Cunningham, the task of the Christian when it came to life and death in the medical sphere once posed less of a challenge:
"The bioethics 1.0 decisions," she explains, "were those we're all pretty familiar with. They have to do with who is a human being...these are the questions at the beginning of human life: how we handle embryos, how we make decisions about children in the womb—and at the end of life: How do we care for the terminally ill, the elderly, the disabled, the permanently comatose? So, how we enter and exit life are the bioethics 1.0 questions."
The rule which has always guided Christians through bioethics 1.0 decisions, she says, was simple: "If this is a human being, we don't kill them."
But we're living in a new age of bioethics, when old-school decisions about the sanctity of life will increasingly seem dwarfed by the dilemmas science and technology pose. She argues that Christian ethicists and laypeople of the next generation must be able to distinguish between preserving biological life and worshiping it, between withdrawing care and killing, and between healing and playing God.
Paige Cunningham, J.D.
Things have gotten a lot more complicated, and with the advent of sophisticated life support techniques, tissue transplants and therapies capable of easily prolonging life or hastening death, we have to ask ourselves more nuanced questions about the intent behind our actions, and even about the purpose of medicine, itself.
We call this bioethics 2.0, and according to Cunningham, adapting in this brave new world of medical miracles and menaces means employing a new ethical toolbox capable of dealing with new challenges. She proposes a set of questions more apt to steer us straight as we grapple with end-of-life issues—something she says nearly all of us will do at some point.
First, we must ask, in light of the fact that all human beings bear God's image and are infinitely valuable, whether we're intentionally causing harm. We must never allow utilitarian or pragmatic considerations to control our ethic, as these can lead to decisions which devalue or even destroy life. Second, we have to consider whether the technology, procedure or medication we're deliberating will help our patient or loved one to flourish as a human being. But we must also be willing to accept the reality and (for Christians) the blessing of death.
Pro-lifers, believes Cunningham, may find this last point difficult to embrace. But the same convictions which lead us to fight for life and offer it every chance at long-term survival we can provide should also remind us that this mortal life is not the ultimate good.
"We may feel morally obligated to take every possible measure be used to keep Grandmother alive," she says. "As Christians, we don't have to do that. I think for some people it's a huge relief to realize that we're not required to preserve every last breath of life."
And while we must never directly cause or hasten death, we must carefully and prayerfully discern when the time has come to let those we care for most return to our Lord. This question, and hundreds like it, are the reason the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity exists.
"I want to give people the confidence that you can think your way through these questions," says Cunningham. "But you don't have to do it alone. I go to experts on these issues! There's so much happening, and there's no way to stay on top of it."
That's what we hope you'll do after listening to this week's edition of "BreakPoint This Week." Check out CBHD.org, and take advantage of the insight and understanding of Christian ethicists who've counseled countless families like yours on the hard decisions.
There is a key to navigating the turbulent waters of everyday bioethical challenges in the new millennium. According to Cunninghan, "It's knowing, 'what are the questions to ask?' and 'what information do I need to understand this particular decision?'"
Today, we're all practical bioethicists. But although technology changes, we can do the right thing consistently when we base our choices on the moral laws of the God who never does.