A review of Human Dignity in the Biotech Century. Edited by Charles Colson and Nigel M de S. Cameron.

InterVarsity Press, 2004.

The title of this collection of essays is both a good summary of the book and an important warning as to where we are headed as a society. Certainly the 21st century will be known as the century of biotechnology. Whether genetic engineering, designer babies, human cloning, stem cell research or nanotechnology, the advances in this field will continue apace. But so too will the ethical concerns.

Indeed, what it means to be human, what it is to be a person, and questions of human worth and dignity are all raised in the light of these new technologies. While perhaps all of the technologies are being championed as means to a better human end, many more cautious minds are expressing concerns about the potential for dehumanisation and a cavalier attitude toward life. Very real concerns about the state of personhood and the uniqueness of human life are engendered by the new biotech.

Clear ethical and social understanding of where the new technologies are taking us is thus the order of the day, and the editors of this book are well-suited to the task. They have both been at the forefront of ethical and theological reflection on the direction of the new biotech revolution. Charles Colson has long championed the need for a biblical worldview to assess where western society is heading, and Cameron is a leading bioethicist who has been dealing in these issues for quite some time now. His important volume The New Medicine, penned back in 1991, was one of the early wake-up calls as to where the new medical technologies were taking us.

In this volume we have twelve essays written by experts in the field, experts such as David Prentice, Richard Doerflinger, Wesley Smith and William Saunders. They all offer relevant expertise in the areas of medicine, genetics, the new reproductive technologies, and biotechnology. But they also combine with that expertise the necessary moral, theological and philosophical framework by which to judge these new advances.

Cameron’s opening chapter sets the stage, reminding us that it is not just such fields as embryology and genetics that we need to be up on, but anthropology as well. That is, we need to see the bigger picture of what it is to be human. The authors here all approach their anthropology by way of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Cameron discusses three developments in the field of bioethics. In the first period, discussion centered on whether and when we should take life, as in the abortion and euthanasia debates. During the second period, the debate was on the making of human life, as in IVF. The most recent period has focused on the manipulation and manufacture of life, as in robotics and nanotechnology. Cameron says this progression really entails talk of taking life to making life to faking life. Not a bad summary of the way biotech has been evolving.

Cameron urges a two-pronged strategy for dealing with these trends. One, a strong pro-life paradigm must be articulated. Two, working alliances with more politically progressive groups may be needed if we wish to stem the tide of runaway Big Biotech.

The other authors also provide stimulating and informative offerings. Most of the big ethical questions get a lengthy hearing. When does life begin? Are there limits to science and technology? Who owns our genes? Will a clone have a soul? Are we witnessing a new eugenics? These and related questions are more than adequately covered in this comprehensive and incisive volume.

The meaty chapters in this book focus on a number of the new biotech developments, but all with a view to maintaining human dignity and value. With science and technology fast outstripping our moral and social reflection on them, a book like this is vitally needed to help us think critically, ethically and in an informed manner. Thus this volume deserves a very wide reading indeed.

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