Adventists and Bioethics
As a young Adventist hospital chaplain in 1967, many of the most perplexing questions that came my way had to do with the
ethics of our medical interventions, especially at the beginning and the end of life. When, for example, should newly available forms of life-extending technologies be withheld or withdrawn because they were merely prolonging the dying process?
One memorable case is still painfully vivid. A beautiful 3-year-old girl had run into a street and been struck by a pickup truck. Her breathing was being sustained by a large, noisy machine pumping air into her lungs. My services as a chaplain were requested to help her devoutly religious family understand that her physicians were planning to remove artificial life support. Even though the idea of “brain death” was new then, the girl’s doctors felt certain that she would never wake up from her deep coma. The miracle for which the family was praying was in God’s hands.
Such cases went far beyond the theological education I had received. They raised many questions that were beginning to be explored in the newly named field of “bioethics.” And they set me on a path of thinking about the practical implications of our theology in relation to health care. For faith-inspired medical institutions, such questions require faithful answers.
For example, what exceptional circumstances, if any, might justify the termination of a pregnancy? And if such exceptions are made, who decides? What kinds of assistance for human procreation are ethically permissible for faithful Christians and their health-care professionals? At both of life’s edges, humans have become increasingly baffled by some of our most noteworthy medical advances.
Exploring the Issues
Some years later I was teaching Christian ethics at an Adventist university when I proposed offering a new course in bioethics. The dean of my school wondered about the wisdom of such an offering because, he said, there were no biblical texts or passages in the Spirit of Prophecy that spoke specifically to most of the issues. I pled for the opportunity to give the course a try, and my dean acquiesced.
I reasoned that Seventh-day Adventists own and operate some of the most forward-looking and prestigious health-care institutions in the world. We also have universities conducting significant research in human biology and medicine. And we continue to educate thousands of health-care professionals. When a community of vibrant faith is engaged in health sciences to this degree, it’s to be expected that careful attention will be given to the ethical issues entailed in such work.
I also remembered counsel from Ellen White to leaders: “If they make the broad principles of the Word of God the foundation of the character, they may stand wherever the Lord in His providence may call them.”1
The official search for such principles was assigned to a committee appointed by General Conference leaders in 1989. For just more than a decade the Christian View of Human Life Committee was charged with the responsibility of generating bioethics guidelines for consideration by our church. Statements about a wide variety of topics, including “Care for the Dying” and “Guidelines on Abortion,” were adopted by the church. A collection of these statements can be found on our church’s Web site.2
Perhaps the time will come to gather another representative group of informed believers, including health-care professionals, theologians, ethicists, and others, to review our past work and consider many of the pressing matters now current.
The pace of new developments in human biology and medicine shows no sign of slackening. Progress with stem cells, genetic interventions, new forms of assisted procreation, and the introduction of remarkably expensive new medications are but a few examples of a growing list of advances that continue to call for careful ethical reflection and decisions.
The Creator of our universe gave the gift of life, and also the gift of revelation to guide our care of life (see John 10:10). The abundance of our lives is greatly enhanced when the gift of love we have from Jesus motivates us to care for one another in ways that are guided by principled integrity. The need for such care is never greater than when those we love are in jeopardy because their health is threatened. Thoughtful development of biblically principled approaches to bioethical questions will help ensure that our care is both loving and wise.
- Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1951), p. 405.