Thinking Biblically about the Ethics of Prenatal Diagnosis – Dr Paul Mercer

The Scripture’s significance for contemporary life

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from Luke’s Journal 2018 | Hot Topics #1 | Vol.23 No.3

A bible with a magnifying glass highlighting the tile "Holy Bible:

There has, and always will be, an ongoing need to express the content of Scripture regarding its significance for contemporary life.

As we approach Scripture, we are wise to clarify that the grand narrative – the story of the Bible – is the story which is shaping our lives. Wherever we break the Bible into ‘chunks’ (and for this paper I mean the development of Christian ethical thinking), we are in the potentially dangerous place of fitting our ethics into the reigning story of our own culture and all its idols.
Two immediate traps await Christians reading the Bible for ethics:

  1. We tend to place ourselves above Scripture rather than in Scripture. We use our study skills to identify proof texts and chose to ignore that the Scriptures are “reading us.”
  2. It then becomes sensible to us to hold an “extractionist” approach to Scripture rather than allowing ourselves to be formed by Scripture. Any attempt to consider Scripture passages as relevant to ethical challenges needs to be slanted to the question, “How do we live out this story?” Another question might be, “How do we live out the consequences of the story as virtue ethics?”

With this awareness we can also recognise that the Scriptures are about a way of life that is focused through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the one who is truly the image of God. Christ is the truly normative human being. Ethics is about Christ being formed in us.

As we embrace and allow this story to become the centre of our own life stories, Biblical materials emerge as helpful guides to ethical matters. I recommend the following…

The goodness of creation

We should acknowledge that God’s self-assessment of creation is its goodness (Genesis 1). This goodness produces the impact of beauty and wonder. It establishes a basic reliability when previously there was chaos. Science depends on this reliability. Both the stability and adaptability of creation and the genome are an enduring witness to this goodness. Prenatal diagnosis is an emerging window into such goodness. Genomic laws are relatively simple. Epigenetic factors raise the complexity of understanding significantly.

In the language of creation we discover more than a decisive act. There is also a sense of an ongoing dimension of good creation in the world. The role of the Spirit is to continue the work of creation (the tense of the language in Genesis is enduring) and, as human beings, God invites us to partner with him in the project of earth-keeping and forming creation. We could say that there is room in creation for ongoing action and the formation of creation toward sustainability.

The goodness of creation should also alert us to ‘handle it with care’ and resist pragmatic destructiveness. This comes into even clearer focus when we recognise that God has created human beings ‘in his image’. The term ‘image’, contains both the possibility of reflecting who God is in our being and also exercising the stewardship of partnership for the sake of creation and the Kingdom of God. The image of God is the goodness that allows for an intimacy of relationship between God and human beings. Finally, God has not only created the genome but has given human beings the desire and ability to understand it.

The stain of sin

Genesis 3 relates the story of sin’s entrance into the world through human rebellion (Adam and Eve). While sin immediately distorts the goodness of human beings, it also impacts on the whole of the good creation. In Romans 8, Paul presents the image of all creation as groaning, as if it were in the pangs of childbirth. In the good creation, now influenced by the corruption of sin, we can recognise the emergence of genetic abnormality and dysfunction. A burden of suffering and struggle are associated with this disintegration.

“How do we live out the consequences of the story as virtue ethics?”

Because of the room within God as Father, Son and Spirit (Trinity), the good creation also has its own room, apart from God in time and the space. So because God loves his good creation, God acts to sustain it – the sun continues to rise, the rain falls, etc.. The creative logic of God in creation is not overwhelmed by sin. We can continue to rely on the principles of goodness built into creation. We can continue to observe the Spirit acting in new creation ways. We are now made aware that the Spirit acts to blunt the excesses of sin and corruption – the Spirit restores. This is good news for the human genome which is subject to mutations, environmental insults, rebellious human choices, etc.. Christians can confidently be involved with all interested parties in positive measures to prevent, manage and restore the consequences of sin on the human genome. The Bible identifies that sin has an architect – variously described as the devil, Satan or the evil one. Sin can be experienced in cosmic and structural dimensions that manifest as evil and in the cause of death. The challenge of ethical behaviour in these contexts can only occur by the power of the Holy Spirit in us.

Redemption

The calling of Israel to “Be my people” and the giving of God’s law through Moses are the means of God beginning to reconcile the creation in the wake of sin and the Fall. Against the testimony of the goodness of creation, the calling of a people/nation who are committed to the clarity and holiness of the law given to the chosen becomes a light shining in the good creation where the creeping darkness of sin is on display.

As a “light to the nations”, Israel is a reminder that God loves his good creation; that the room of grace in God desires a relationship with creation and the ‘image bearers’; that God is willing to make “best practice” (the law) in providence. God hopes that such people who covenant with such best practice guidelines can be a role model for all creation/humanity. Choosing life over death, living justly, exercising mercy and always walking humbly before God can be considered as Old Testament ethical levers in responding to genetic prenatal diagnosis contexts.

The coming of Jesus of Nazareth heralds the initiation of re-creation and secures the reality of reconciled relationships between God and Creation. The redemption of creation through Christ generates many possibilities for ethics:

  • The incarnation, the coming of God into the world through Jesus, reaffirms God’s deep love for his good creation.
  • Against the backdrop of the ongoing creative and restorative work of the Spirit, Jesus enters history as the perfect, only truly human, only sinless human being. We can say Jesus had a perfect human genome. Jesus is a preview of the full perfection of the human genome – through creation, restoration and recreation. Jesus is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.
  • At this point in the creation and redemption history, the reality of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit is informative. We can say creation and redemption occur out of the relationships of the Trinity. So after Iraneus1, we can assert through this Son and Spirit (His two hands), the Father prevents creation from slipping back into the nothingness from which it came and restores its movement to perfection. The unity and diversity within the Godhead allow for unity and diversity within the human genome and consequently human beings created in the image of God.
  • This good news about Jesus is the Gospel, which Mark recommends be shared with “all creation” (Mk 16:15). It is inclusive of ‘good news’ for the human genome, for health systems and healing, for parents who embrace the joy and uncertainty of the gift of children, for communities anywhere who gather to work and worship as a preview, as the firstfruits of the formation of Christ’s people in the world through history.
  • Ethics becomes the grace-filled responses of Christified medical professionals, administrators, lawyers, financiers and people (both female and male) who hold an interest in prenatal human beings with potential. Christian ethics recognises the creational goodness and the Spirit-led insight of all who hold interest in preterm genetic matters. Christian ethics understands the deforming and frustrating impact of sin. Christian ethics can engage in dialogue with ethical problem-solvers, in the humility of Christ. The distortion of bioethical systems developed without Christ and the gospel can be reformed and transformed.
  • Historically, we can identify that we live in the ‘now-not yet’ period of the narrative of the Kingdom of God. In this context, ethics can only hold a faithful provisionality perspective. The unmerited grace of God in Christ is a light which shines in our world. The equally unmerited transformation toward Christification (through the power of the Spirit) nurtures the hope that all things, including genetic disease, will be finally reconciled through Christ. This is the world’s true hope. Whilst faith, hope and love abide, according to St Paul, love will always be the “greatest of these.” This is the most defining aspect of ethical thinking and behaviour.

It will be clear that I have not yet arrived at a set of tools for Christian professionals to approach scripture with ethical questions, but only a background briefing.

Conclusion

The principle of spiritual formation, of Christification is preeminent and non-negotiable as we read Scripture. My hope is that the reflective material presented here, will allow a wide and productive conversation about ethics within CMDFA and beyond. A simple scan of Biblical material offers no immediate texts around the ethics of prenatal diagnosis. The ‘eyes to see’ that come with the formation of Christ in us, will take us further. I have sought to spell out such a challenge in this material.




Dr Paul Mercer
Dr Paul Mercer is a GP principal at Manly in Queensland. He is the editor of Luke’s Journal and among other things is part of the “Theology on Tap” team in Brisbane and has been a member of the CMDFA ethics working group.


References

1. Irenaeus of Lyons: http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2017/04/.irenaeus-creation-the-fathers-two-hands/

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