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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Hollywood, Bioethics and the Meaning of Persons

Sep 20, 2016

Some of the most important questions to be asked and answered by any worldview worth taking seriously concerns the issue of personhood. Such questions would include: What is it to be human? Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we of any value? Where are we heading? Do humans have any special significance, or are we just animals?

As I have argued elsewhere, it seems to me that only the Judeo-Christian worldview takes these questions seriously, and provides us with answers that affirm and promote human dignity, value and worth. Not every worldview has such a high view of humanity and personhood. Indeed, some worldviews have a terrible view of these things.

Thus Christians should be at the forefront of all the major debates involving human dignity, human rights, and human significance. Yet sadly Christians are too often silent on these key debates and controversies. When we think of the big bioethics debates for example, too many believers have no idea what is at stake here, and what Christianity has to offer.

islandWhether it is the older debate on things such as abortion and euthanasia, or the newer bioethics debates about stem cell research, human cloning, surrogacy, assisted reproductive technologies and genetic engineering, many Christians are unaware and uninterested in being salt and light in such areas.

But that needs to change. We can’t just let secular voices and worldviews determine the way ahead on these vitally important issues. This is especially the case when many of these debates centre on whether we should legalise some things currently forbidden, such as human cloning.

So believers need to engage here. They first need to appreciate and understand their own biblical worldview, and then they need to apply this to the bioethical debates of the day. As I say, non-believers are certainly engaging here. Many concerned secularists are asking hard questions about these new technologies, and we believers should be as well.

Indeed, even Hollywood is interested in these issues. There have been numerous Hollywood films dealing with biotechnology and the meaning of persons which have been coming out at a regular pace. They are raising the moral and social issues involved, and they are forcing us to ask some hard questions.

Consider these twenty titles from the past forty years:

Soylent Green (1973) An older sci-fi flick starring Charlton Heston set in the futuristic New York where life is now greatly overpopulated and polluted, with the masses starving and homeless.

The Boys from Brazil (1978) One of the earliest films about human cloning, it centres on Dr Josef Mengele making clones of Hitler in South America.

Blade Runner (1982) A film dealing with issues such as genetic engineering and the cloning of “replicants” who do all the menial and dangerous work, set in a dystopian Los Angeles, starring a young Harrison Ford.

Jurassic Park (1993) This highly successful film was the first of many to discuss what happens when we can recreate dinosaurs from their DNA, and the havoc they can cause in the modern world. The ethics of such experimentation is a major part of these films.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) Based on the H. G. Wells novel, this film looks at the frightening world of human-animal hybrids, raising questions about types of experimentation, and what it means to be human.

Gattaca (1997) This important film raises many ethical issues as it looks at genetic engineering and the creation of a genetic underclass. Normally born people are viewed as inferior and treated accordingly compared to those who are genetically engineered.

The Truman Show (1998) The ultimate reality TV story about a man (Jim Carrey) born and bred his entire life in an artificial environment (a massive TV set) for the entertainment of others.

Bicentennial Man (1999) This film starring Robin Williams looks at very human-like robots, and what line if any there might be between man and machine.

The Sixth Day (2000) The Arnie Schwarzenegger blockbuster has to do with animal and human cloning, and the problems associated with it in a futuristic world.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) (2001) This film directed by Steven Spielberg also explores human-like robots and the interplay between humans and non-humans.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) This is a film about euthanasia (offering a pro-euthanasia perspective) starring and directed by Clint Eastwood.

I Robot (2004) The futuristic action film starring Will Smith also involves humanoid robots, and raises questions about what it is to be human.

The Island (2005) This is another dystopian film about human cloning and genetic engineering, this time for the sake of spare body parts for rich clients. Plenty of ethical issues come to the fore here as well. Starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

Children of Men (2006) This film, based on the P. D. James, novel, is about a future world where infertility is the norm, threatening the extinction of mankind. When a woman is discovered carrying a baby however, it changes everything.

WALL-E (2008) This animated film, although as much for children as adults, also raises the questions of what it is to be human and how non-human life can become person-like.

My Sister’s Keeper (2009) Based on the novel written by Jodi Picoult, this film looks at the ethical dilemmas of creating a sibling for the sole purpose of providing organ transplants to an ailing sister.

Surrogates (2009) As the title suggest, this film starring Bruce Willis is about a future society and surrogacy, and the related issues of living a surrogate life via one’s robotic double.

Splice (2010) I must confess I have not seen this film because of its adult rating, but it involves the experimentation in and creation of hybrid species. Questions about genetic engineering and the meaning of persons are again raised.

Elysium (2013) In a futuristic world, the poor are left with sickness, misery and death on earth, while the very wealthy live in a giant space habitat orbiting earth, where all diseases can be remedied. Questions of class, medical ethics, scarcity of resources and so on are raised here.

Chappie (2015) This is another sci-fi thriller set in the future where robot police come into conflict with human beings.

There would be plenty more such films that could be mentioned, but these twenty are some of the more well-known. When I teach on bioethics I often encourage students to have an entire session devoted to watching and discussing such films.

The ones that certainly are thought-provoking and raise numerous ethical issues include Gattaca, The Island, and My Sister’s Keeper. Most of these films offer a few hours of hard core entertainment to be sure, but they also raise vital issues that we all should be aware of, and moral questions that need to be dealt with.

So the next time you go to see a new film, or revisit an older one, seek to get one of these sorts of films. We need to be thinking carefully and critically reflecting on the new bioethics issues of the day. Hollywood is already doing this, and we should be too.

As Albert Mohler said some years ago now, “Christians are sleeping through history as new medical technologies threaten the very meaning of human life.” Yes quite so. We need to wake up and engage with these and other issues. If our voices are not heard on these matters, too many of the wrong voices will be.

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5 Responses to Hollywood, Bioethics and the Meaning of Persons

  • Bicentennial Man and I, Robot are both from Isaac Asimov short stories. Even more than his big novels (Foundation series and Robotics set) the short stories explored the ethics of Asimov’s obvious evolutionary views, adn his distinctly anti-Creationist stance.

    However, he could never get away from the “all-powerful God” idea, as a number of his stories and novellas ended with “Let there be light!”

    Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (2001, A Space Odyssey etc) were highly influential writers of sci-fi concepts which have permeated modern life.

    I think the only other sci-fi motif to have the same kind of grip on the modern imagination is Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy wrist watch. The hero would speak into it, asking questions as banal as the time, or as deep as the next clue required to catch the crims.

  • Hi Bill,
    You forgot the newest version of Robo-cop where all that was left of the “man”, that was still considered his own essence was his head/brain and lungs, the rest had artificially been replaced. They even had behavior modification blockers and deals with the morals of doing all that just to keep some one alive and the notion of trying to mass produce the perfect “super soldier/human” which seems to be a constant running theme through these movies that Gods perfect creation can be made better by Man!

    The issues of super soldiers and the race race for singularity to blend flesh (the mind) with machinery to achieve immortality (to be like gods) is I believe is interwoven with the whole cloning/genetically engineering industry, which has huge ramifications for economies and society in the near future.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after. KJV

    When we read Genesis 6 and break it down, what was going on that had the Lord so grieved so much that he not only vowed to destroy Man, but all living creatures that ultimately lead to to the flood and the salvation of man (all pure creation) through Noah?

    Genesis 6:7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. KJV

    Was it because after the sons of God (fallen angles) mated with the daughters of men that men then started to experiment with generic manipulation, mixing men with animals and animals with animals.

    Have a look at 2045.com/ the link below is their overview of our possible future
    youtu.be/01hbkh4hXEk this isn’t a movie, they believe this stuff and have a “Immortality button” at the top of the page.
    It is but one of a few sites that is pushing this whole advancement of man and his ingenuity – or his future enslavement to achieving singularity “To Be Like Gods”. and is attracting a lot of interest and finance to achieve this outcome.

    I’ve recently been reading material by Rob Skiba the connects the dots for me in many of these areas, some of his ideas/views are controversial but worth a look at, (he also says don’t just believe me, do your own research) but I do agree we need to come out of Babylon and leave everything behind, that the reformation started, with pagan worship that we been continually deceived into believing and still practice, because we have forgotten and not understood where we have come from and how the Lord has dealt with his people before with warnings and punishments and don’t take them, and the future ones seriously.

  • I was only thinking recently about Asimov’s three laws of robotics (as in “I Robot”) and wondering if they had only been programmed to maintain truth as the first law and shuffled the others down in priority, then the problems would not have arisen. Unfortunately this is not a lesson that modern sociologists and politicians have understood i.e that truth is paramount (no pun intended).

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