A review of Cutting-Edge Bioethics. Edited by John Kilner, et. al.

Eerdmans, 2002.

One of the areas of greatest growth and expansion in recent times is that of biotechnology. New developments are taking place almost weekly, and there is enormous potential for profitability. In many ways biotech has outstripped computer and other technologies as a major growth area. But while the science and technology of human life has mushroomed in the last few years, the ethics of biotech have been much less forthcoming.

That is, bioethics have not kept pace with biotechnology. And given how most of us are or will be affected by the new biological and reproductive technologies, it is imperative that some serious ethical thinking about biotech be promoted. But as is often the case, science is well and truly leading in this particular race.

Fortunately, however, there are a number of groups and individuals who are taking up the challenge by engaging in moral reflection on where the new technologies are taking us.

One such group that is at the cutting-edge of bioethics is the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity located just outside of Chicago. In a few short years the CBHD has become a leading center of research and study in the burgeoning field of bioethics. Its annual bioethics conference held each July draws experts from around the globe to discuss the latest trends in biotechnology, and offer incisive ethical comment on the advances being made.

In this, the latest volume to be released from the Center, a team of 15 experts address a wide array of issues concerning the new technologies, and the various trends in biotech. Stem cell research, cloning, the Human Genome Project, genetic manipulation, xenotransplantation, transgenics, nanotechnology and cybernetics are among the many fascinating topics covered.

If some of the terms just mentioned seem exotic and even unpronounceable, this is a reflection of the rapid change and development taking place with the new biotechnologies. It is a full time job just to keep up with all the new developments, let alone offer social and moral critiques of them. But this volume manages to do just that. Experts in genetics, reproductive technologies, health care and public policy not only discuss the new technologies in a clear and accessible fashion, but they also provide ethical appraisal of the developments from a Christian perspective.

For example, Dr Francis Collins, who contributed an article on genetic engineering, is well placed for the task. Not only is he a committed Christian, thus able to bring moral and biblical concerns to bear on the issue, but he is also the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Washington D.C. Thus he brings top-notch scientific expertise to the debate, coloured by a carefully nuanced ethical perspective.

As such, he presents the many possible benefits from the HGP, but also discusses the very real dangers inherent in our new knowledge of genetics. And he is aware of the limits to science and technology. Science will not “shed any light on what it means to love someone, what it means to have a spiritual dimension to our experience, nor will it tell us much about the character of God. We must look to other sources to provide light for our spiritual journeys. Science is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding the natural world, but it is poorly designed for understanding these other aspects of who we are.”

A very interesting article on the future trends of biotechnology comes from Richard Swenson, the Director of the Future Health Study Center. He offers an intriguing glimpse into various future scenarios. He reminds us that above all, the economic factor will determine future trends. With health care costs consuming ever larger hunks of the national budget, expect medicine to continue to change, often for the worse.

And in the area of the new reproductive technologies, he reminds us that the separation of sex from reproduction is now almost complete. In fact, there are now over 25 different ways to create a baby, with no end in sight. The ramifications for the institutions of marriage and family are enormous.

Indeed, many of the authors in this book remind us that the staggering new advances in science and technology are radically shifting our understanding of what it is to be a human. Humanity and personhood are under serious threat, with one author going so far as to suggest that “mortal human beings are rapidly becoming an endangered species”. He continues, “This is not a question about personal ethics, but about eugenics. The completion of the map of the human genome only brings closer the possibility of using this potentially wonderful technology as a weapon against the genetically undesirable and as a greenhouse for the genetically desirable.”

Whether the new technologies usher in a new paradise or the extinction of humankind is an open question. But clearly the new technologies are taking us in places we have never been before. And before we proceed much further, we need to do some serious thinking about the ethics of these new developments. And a very good place to begin with such reflection is this very important book.

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