Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

When the Sanctity-of-Life Ethic Dies (Jan-Feb 2005)

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by Michael Poore
January – February, 2005

Why are millions of American children—almost one in four boys—taking prescription drugs to alter their behavior? Would a person with a brain “chip” that enhances memory still be himself? Should parents be allowed to screen embryos in order to select the sex of their children? What about employing medical technology to enable a 56-year-old single woman to have twins, using donated eggs and donated sperm?

This list of important bioethical issues could be extended almost indefinitely: human cloning, stem cell research that destroys human embryos, euthanasia (“mercy killing”) of disabled newborn babies, the fate of over 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States, women graduate students selling their eggs for as much as $20,000 per donor cycle, the legal abortion of some 46 million babies since 1973, and the debate over removing life support from patients in a permanent “vegetative” state.

In our highly secular culture, these bioethical issues are rarely resolved by a thought-out system of ethics. Contemporary Americans want ethical issues to be reduced to simple, straightforward problems with quick, easy solutions. We do not like complexity; we do not like to think.

Most often, we take a consumer approach that seeks to find solutions through shopping around for the right expert with the right technology. For the little boy who cannot sit still at school, a prescription drug that helps him stay focused. For wrinkles that come naturally with aging, cosmetic surgery or a botox injection. For the young couple that has trouble getting pregnant, in vitro fertilization, which includes making “spare” embryos in case the first implantation attempt fails. Even life’s most pressing issues must be resolved by off-the-shelf solutions at an affordable price.

These generalizations do not, of course, fit all cases, but the mentality is typical. Ethical decisions are almost never made on the basis of a thought-out system of ethics. This is true of Christians as well as of secularists. In fact, ethical decisions may not be identified as ethical at all. Rather, they are often mislabeled as “problems to be solved,” on the same level as the need to put a new clutch in the Honda Accord. The spiritual poverty of contemporary life causes us to miss the moral dimension of much that we do.

Take one of the examples mentioned above, infertility. If a couple cannot have a baby, it is taken to be simply a biological problem, and a medical remedy is sought. If in vitro fertilization is recommended, it becomes the solution to the problem. But that should not be the end of the story. As is often said, “The devil is in the details.”

With in vitro, as with all bioethical issues, making the right ethical decisions requires paying attention to the details and asking lots of questions. How does in vitro change the way we look at reproduction? What should be done with the extra embryos that are made? Should extra embryos even be made? What about freezing embryos—is it right to suspend the development of a healthy human being in a frozen state? Why only seek medical advice when dealing with fertility issues, instead of also seeking spiritual counsel? Obviously, these ethical issues will be missed if infertility is defined merely as a technical problem. They will also be missed if the solution to the “problem”—the production of a baby—is the only issue addressed.

This type of decision-making is not systematic; it is not thought-out. The focus is on outcomes and little, if any, attention is paid to the ethical significance of the details. Most importantly, this ad hoc approach is the dominant method of making bioethical decisions. It is called “preference utilitarianism” by philosophers and ethicists. However, as described above and as practiced by the typical American, it could be just as accurately called “consumer utilitarianism.”

Preference utilitarianism focuses on outcomes, or consequences, and holds that the greatest good is done when the greatest number of preferences is satisfied. Decisions should be made based on what will maximize the satisfaction of desires or preferences of the persons affected. Right is done when preferences are satisfied; wrong is done when preferences are thwarted.

It is should not be surprising that preference utilitarianism is the dominant method of ethical decision-making in our highly secular society. It reflects the core beliefs and commitments of our secular culture: 1) there is nothing beyond the observable natural world—there is no supernatural; 2) meaning, if it is to be found, must be created in the experiences of this life; 3) truth is not revealed or discovered, but rather represents the perspectives of individuals and groups; 4) persons are not “special,” but merely the most evolved and smartest among the animals; (5) the teachings of Christianity, which shaped the beliefs and ethics of Western culture, can no longer be accepted because of their outmoded belief in the supernatural.

For the “consumer” utilitarians, these beliefs are implicit, since they constitute the unexamined assumptions behind their ethical decisions. While this is obviously true of secularists who claim no religious commitments, many Christians also operate on the basis of “consumer” utilitarianism. Their confessed beliefs may reflect historic Christianity, but their lives are not shaped by those beliefs. In their ethical decisions, they, too, are secular—they live as if God does not exist.

“Consumer” utilitarianism—the ad hoc method of decision-making of the person-on-the-street—is the popular expression of preference utilitarianism. However, in the fields of philosophy and ethics, preference utilitarianism has been given systematic formulations by such thinkers as R. M. Hare, who teaches at Oxford University, and, more prominently, Peter Singer, who teaches at Princeton University. Singer is commonly referred to as “the most influential living philosopher in the world.”

Peter Singer has spent most of his professional career elaborating and applying his version of preference utilitarianism. At the heart of his system is a curious distinction between “human” and “person,” terms that most people use interchangeably. Singer uses “human” strictly in a biological sense to refer to “member[s] of the species Homo sapiens.” He has no doubt that “from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.” Yet, Singer insists, there is nothing special about humans that would give them more value than other feeling animals.

Persons, as distinct from humans, are characterized by self-consciousness, a sense of the future, rationality, and the capacity to relate to others. According to Singer, these characteristics are what make a being a person. Personhood is not innate; it is acquired, and can be lost. Furthermore, “there could be a person who is not a member of our species. There could also be members of our species who are not persons.” The newborn infant would not be a person, and neither would the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s. However, the adult chimpanzee, dog, pig, and cow would be persons.

Only beings that have developed the characteristics of persons can have preferences and desires; thus, it is to persons that Singer gives a special status. According to Singer’s preference utilitarianism, right is done when a person’s preferences are satisfied; wrong is done when a person’s preferences are thwarted.

The story of baby John Pearson illustrates how Singer’s ethic works out in real life. John was born with Down’s syndrome, a genetic abnormality that produces moderate to severe mental deficiencies, short stature, slanted eyes, and other physical abnormalities. In spite of these limitations, people with Down’s do not suffer from the conditions per se but often have a happy and cheerful disposition. Baby John’s parents, however, decided that they did not want him because of his disabilities, so they instructed the doctors to provide minimal care, ensuring that he would not survive. Singer not only agreed with the decision to let this disabled baby die (passive euthanasia), but he even went a step further. He argued that the parents should have had the option to openly kill their baby using a painless lethal injection (active euthanasia).

Singer justifies the killing of an infant, such as baby John, by examining the baby’s fate from two perspectives: that of the parents, and that of the baby itself. In the case of the parents, having a healthy child is their preference. They either do not want to, or feel that they cannot, take on the emotional and financial burden of caring for a disabled child. However, if the disabled child dies, it would give them the opportunity to have another child that would be healthy. Singer argues, “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.” The killing of the disabled baby would enable the exercise and satisfaction of the preferences of his parents and would, according to Singer, be a greater good. Simply put, babies are replaceable.

But what about the baby’s perspective? Actually, there is no “baby’s perspective,” so far as Peter Singer is concerned. Since the newborn baby (disabled or not) lacks the characteristics of a person—self-consciousness, a sense of the future, rationality, and the capacity to relate to others—it can have neither perspectives nor preferences. Chillingly, Singer concludes that “[k]illing a snail or day-old infant does not thwart any desires of this kind, because snails and newborn infants are incapable of having such desires.”

Thus, killing a newborn is not wrong in and of itself, since the baby is “not a person whose life has begun.” “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all,” writes Singer in his essay “Justifying Infanticide.” However, if the baby is wanted by its parents or by someone who would adopt it, then it would be wrong to kill the infant. The parents or prospective parents would be wronged by having their preferences thwarted. But the baby would not be wronged since it has no preferences to be thwarted.

It should be noted that Singer does not want people “randomly killing babies.” But his restrictions on infanticide would, in his own words, “owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.”

Peter Singer’s ideas about personhood are not merely the ruminations of an eccentric philosopher who happened to land a good job at Princeton University. In the academic circles, his ideas are representative of mainstream bioethics, both in the United States and around the world. In popular culture, as noted above, his work provides the organization and articulation of the intuitive, less-structured “consumer” utilitarianism of the person-on-the-street.

The dominance of preference utilitarianism reflects a profound change in American bioethics—a change that is part of a larger, century-long process of secularization. In the last three or four decades, the “do no harm” imperative of the Hippocratic tradition in medical ethics has been displaced by this secular ethic that makes personal taste and individual choice decisive in ethical decision-making. Thus, the moral character of medicine has been replaced by the goal of satisfying consumer demands. For those of us committed to a biblically based sanctity-of-life ethic, this change presents significant challenges in two different but closely related arenas: the arena of ideas and the arena of practical ethics.

First, in the arena of ideas, utilitarianism is based on the secular assumptions that there is no God and that the material world is all that there is. Human beings are not special; they are just another species of animal. Humans have no inherent value, but they may achieve a special moral status if they develop into persons, having desires and preferences.

Obviously, these assumptions are radically at odds with the biblical teaching that undergirds the sanctity-of-life ethic. Scripture does not make an arbitrary distinction between “humans” and “persons.” Rather, all human beings have moral worth because they are made in the “image of God,” and humans are special since they alone are made in His image. Additionally, humans are given a unique place in creation: they are to rule over the rest of creation as the stewards of the Creator (Gen. 1:26-30, 9:6).

“Mankind is different, and it makes a difference,” to paraphrase one philosopher. Making this case, in the realm of ideas, is perhaps the most critical challenge for Christians in the bioethics arena. Knowing the teachings of Christianity—its Scriptures and doctrines—must be a priority for the church. It is difficult to argue and naïve to believe that bioethics, or any ethics, can remain Christian without a proper biblical grounding, especially given the powerful and subtle challenges of a highly secular culture.

The British writer Dorothy Sayers made this same point some fifty years ago when commenting on the importance of Christian doctrine: “[I]t is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.” Later in the same essay, “Creed or Chaos,” she again insisted that Christians must be serious about biblical doctrines if “Christianity is to be anything more than a little mild wishful thinking about ethical behavior.” In other words, knowing the truth is a fundamental requirement for being free—free both to pursue and to do that which is right (John 8:32).

The second arena where preference utilitarianism challenges the sanctity-of-life ethic is in the area of practical ethics. As noted above, the consequences of Peter Singer’s ideas can be extremely chilling. In and of itself, killing a snail and killing a day-old infant are morally the same. Even a healthy newborn baby does not have the same claim to life as a person: “Killing them cannot be equated with killing normal human beings….No infant—disabled or not—has a strong claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” According to Singer’s ethic, being unwanted, or unable to want, could very well get you killed.

Nothing could be more radically opposed to the sanctity-of-life ethic, which is based on the biblical teaching that every human being has inherent moral worth because each is created in God’s image. This doctrine confers on humans a moral status that clearly specifies that certain things cannot be done to a human without doing a wrong. The extreme, murder, is dealt with explicitly in Genesis 9:6, where capital punishment is sanctioned because the murder of a human takes the life of one made in the image of God.

Humans alone bear God’s image and receive the special moral standing of image-bearer. The practical consequences of this are enormous, and much of Scripture is devoted to spelling out what this means in the realm of practical ethics. In the Old Testament, for example, six of the Ten Commandments deal with how humans are to treat each other: murder, stealing, adultery, lying, and coveting are forbidden while respect for parents is required. In the New Testament, Jesus tells the powerful story of the Good Samaritan to illustrate how we are to treat our fellow image-bearers, our neighbors.

In the case of baby John, the infant born with Down’s syndrome, this ethic would not only have saved his life, but it would also have given him the proper care needed to grow and flourish to the potential that the Creator had given him. God gave his life, and no one, not even his parents, has the right to take it away. In fact, the opposite is required: He is to be cared for even at the expense—perhaps, considerable expense—of those who would prove to be true neighbors by “showing mercy” (Luke 10:30-37).

The story of the Good Samaritan raises and answers two of the fundamental questions of everyday life: “Who is my neighbor?” and “How should he be treated?” These are the same questions at the heart of the bioethics debates. Is the unborn baby our neighbor—can we abort him? Is the elderly woman with Alzheimer’s our neighbor—can we do medical experiments on her? Is the embryo our neighbor—can we destroy it to obtain stem cells for developing medical treatments? Again, is the embryo our neighbor—is it right to suspend the development of a healthy human being in a frozen state, merely for our convenience? The answer to each of these questions, based on a biblical sanctity-of-life ethic, is a resounding “No.” Showing mercy—honoring our fellow image-bearers—would prohibit any of these actions.

The challenges of living as a faithful Christian in a highly secular culture are enormous. It has been said that “ideas have consequences,” and the consequences of ideas are nowhere more obvious than in the arena of bioethics. With the dominance of the secular utilitarian ethic, we have witnessed the marginalization of a commitment to the sanctity of life. One is reminded of the observation made several years ago about the place of God and man in postmodern culture: “God is dead, and man isn’t doing so well himself.” Only as the church gives priority to the image of God in man—both theologically and practically—will it be able to reestablish the sanctity-of-life ethic as a force powerful enough to once again influence a culture which, close on the heels of the “death of God,” is beginning to witness the “death of man.” New Wineskins


The Humanitas Project provides bioethics education on a wide range of issues, such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and end-of-life issues. It also publishes a free e-mail newsletter, “Living in the Biotech Century” (available at The newsletter is published twice monthly by The Humanitas Project and is a compendium of news, book reviews, commentary, and other resources related to bioethics and biotechnology.

Wesley J. Smith, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics (Encounter Books, 2002).
[purchase book at Humanitas site]
Smith’s book is an outstanding introduction to many of the issues being debated in bioethics today: the withholding of life-sustaining measures (like food and water), euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, health care rationing, and organ donation. Smith, an attorney, presents a compelling case (based on a “human rights” argument) that something has gone terribly wrong in American medicine. The “do no harm” ethic of the Hippocratic tradition has been abandoned.

Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, editors, Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy (InterVarsity Press, 2004). [purchase book at Humanitas site]
From the Introduction: “Just as most Christians were asleep thirty years ago when Roe v. Wade was decided and abortion on demand became legal, we are again in danger of sleeping through another moral catastrophe. With the latest advances in biotechnology, not only are we taking upon ourselves the god-like prerogative of ending human life as we choose (as we have done with abortion and euthanasia), but we are attempting to appropriate the god-like prerogative of making human life as we choose. The most profound question we are being asked today is which is the more grievous sin against God – to take life created in his image or to make life created in man’s image?”

Using both Christian and public arguments, the twelve authors address a wide range of issues that threaten to undermine human dignity in the Bioetech Century: cloning, genetic engineering, embryo research, cybernetics, stem cell research, nanotechnology, gene therapy, abortion, and numerous others.

Web Sites

Christian Medical and Dental Association

Do No Harm
This site is devoted to the ethics of stem cell research.

The Humanitas Project: A Center for Bioethics Education

The President’s Council on Bioethics

Michael PooreMichael Poore is Executive Director of The Humanitas Project: A Center for Bioethics Education. He writes and speaks on a variety of topics relating to bioethics and biotechnology, and has a Master of Arts in Religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Mike and his wife, Janet, and their children live in Cookeville, Tennessee.

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