A few weeks ago, Nicholas confided to me that he had kidney disease. His condition is getting worse. Nicholas is considering whether to be added to the national transplant waiting list. Last fall, Maria asked me if I knew any infertility specialists. Her daughter and son-in-law were advised by their doctor to pursue IVF immediately, but they felt pressure, rather than support. Last year, Charlotte was told that she was a match for someone who needed her bone marrow. The procedure would be risky for this young mother, but the potential recipient was very sick. (The names are pseudonyms, but these stories are true.)
What do these scenarios have in common? They all involve a bioethical decision, and some stress related to that decision. This illustrates a point I often make: each of us will make at least one bioethical decision in our lifetime. We don’t know when that situation will arise, and often it is emotionally or physically stressful. We know from research and practical experience that it is difficult to make wise decisions under stress.
Some kinds of decisions must be made quickly. Do I choose chemo, which will be excruciating, but might extend my life by six months, or do I reject the chemo and have three comfortable months with my family? This is not the ideal time to discover moral principles or theological concepts.
All this points to the need to develop a strong foundation, to form our moral conscience, before we are in the midst of a crisis. We need to learn to think bioethically, as Christians, now, in our everyday lives.
If you have listened to my Everyday Bioethics commentaries, you will have heard me get at these issues in a variety of ways: updating you on technological developments; using news stories to illustrate an ethical principle; pointing out how Hollywood interprets these issues; expanding our understanding of our responsibility both for our own bodies, and for our common humanity. The cumulative effect, we hope, is to help you see what it means to respect the dignity of every single human being, no matter if they are very tiny, very old, very sick, or very disabled.
Thinking bioethically makes us aware that many health decisions are not just medical choices, but are also moral choices. It is heartbreaking for someone to go down a path assisted by medical technologies, and realize they’ve arrived at a point where there is no morally good option. Decisions regarding infertility and assisted reproduction, for example, inevitably implicate moral concerns. Couples are often unaware that pastoral counsel is advisable. And, all too often, pastors are equally uninformed.
The first step in thinking bioethically is becoming aware. Nicholas, Maria and Charlotte were aware. I invite you to join them, and us, in the life-affirming journey of thinking and living bioethically.