Bioethics has to do with moral reflection on biological and biotechnological developments. Such ethical thinking is certainly needed, since biotechnology is racing ahead, often impervious to moral considerations. Modern science and technology has made all sorts of things possible, even some things which probably should not be allowed.
Consider the issue of saviour siblings. This has to do with the deliberate creation of a sibling to provide body parts to an ailing brother or sister. The 2005 film The Island was one chilling portrayal of where this sort of technology is heading.
In the film Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson play characters who stumble upon an elaborate scheme whereby wealthy people have clones made of themselves, so that if any injury or illness occurs, they have a readymade supply of spare body parts, all with the perfect genetic match.
Saviour siblings are not just the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood fantasy. They are now very much reality. Since 2000 the practice has been going on in the US, and the UK became the first nation to officially legalise the practice in 2004.
Popular American fiction writer Jodi Picoult had become so intrigued by the concept of saviour siblings that she penned a best-selling novel about the practice in 2004 entitled My Sister’s Keeper. Hollywood has now got into the act, and a newly released film by the same title is now in our cinemas.
Starring Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin, it examines the many dilemmas a family faces when it is learned that a child has a deadly disease. From an early age Kate Fitzgerald has had leukemia. The parents are desperate to find a solution and the suggestion of a donor sibling by their doctor results in the creation of Anna.
She was created to save Kate. That is her reason for existence. First she donates blood, and then in more invasive procedures she donates bone marrow. Now she is asked to donate a kidney. At this point 11-year-old Anna says enough is enough.
She takes legal action, suing her parents for the rights to her own body. In the film the mother is obsessed with saving Kate, and Anna and other family members are given short shrift by her. And a wild twist at the end of the book/film provides a climax to the story – although it is a climax that not everyone is happy with.
But the many ethical issues raised in the book and the film go to the heart of some of the major bioethical debates taking place today. Many questions are raised here. Do people have a right to use other people as means to an end, even if it is a good end (to save life)? Do we have some inherent right to live forever?
Should children be created for the sole purpose of helping others? Just because modern science can do something, should it be allowed to? Is it right to kill, in order to save others? (Many embryos are created in the process: the best is selected while the remaining ones are destroyed.)
Just how much are we playing God as we advance even further with the new biotechnologies? This book and film certainly help to raise these many important questions. What they do not do is help us with any clear answers.
This is in large part due to the worldview of the authors. If this life is all there is, and there is nothing beyond the grave, then sure, the urgency of the situation becomes even greater, and people will be willing to take desperate measures in desperate times.
But as Charles Colson reminds us, there is another worldview, one which sees this life as just a preliminary existence, leading on to a much more permanent world. Says Colson, “Unlike the character of Sara in the film, Christians do not have to pin their hope to a savior sibling. Even in death, they have a real Savior, one whose triumph overcomes the grave. That very real Savior willingly gave his life so that as we grieve – even the death of a child – we do not do so as those without hope.”
Of course a Christian will grieve as much as a non-Christian when a beloved child is suffering. But he will also know that there is always hope, and that this temporary life, while often a vale of tears, is not the end of the story. For those who place their trust in Christ, the ultimate saviour sibling, we can and do have a future.
Admittedly, how a believer should respond in a similar situation is still not easy to determine. Many tough questions must be carefully thought through and prayed through. So while we can thank novelists and filmmakers for helping to frame the questions, we will have to look elsewhere for some of the answers.