16 March 2008

Book, long-windedly reviewed and more or less recommended (Part I)

Gilbert Meilaender’s Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Second Edition)

I’m always looking for a good read in the field of bioethics. This was pretty good, although it felt a bit thin overall (hence the “primer” part of the subtitle, I suppose).

Reflections on just a few of the topics addressed:

Organ Donation: This chapter provided me with the most new food for thought, probably because I’ve read and reflected on it the least. Now I just have to figure out how to work these neat phrases like “noble cannibalism,” “useful precadaver,” and “non-heart-beating cadaver,” into everyday conversation. (No, he’s not necessarily against organ donation—just brings into the conversation some nuances that I hadn’t previously considered, including discussion of living donors.)

Embryos: Apparently in the first edition, Meilaender “gave considerable weight” to the possibility that “a new individual human being comes into existence only after ‘twinning’ has or has not occurred.” I’m pleased to see that he has now concluded that “the argument that individuality is not established until approximately fourteen days of development is not going to stand the test of the embryological evidence and is likely to seem increasingly arbitrary” (ix). Individual, unique human life from the moment of conception seems to be the most consistent, Biblical, and logically tenable position.

Abortion: I wasn’t expecting to find anything new or disconcerting here; I was rather surprised to find that he counts pregnancies resulting from rape or incest among the “genuinely exceptional circumstances” in which the “privacy argument” for abortion may narrowly and legitimately apply. He argues that a woman may legitimately choose to abort if either she or the child must die, then applies the same argument to cases of rape or incest: “In the ordinary sense, of course, a woman’s continued life is not threatened by such a pregnancy; yet, the case bears important analogies to that where lives conflict. For in this instance, even though the fetus is, of course, formally innocent, its continued existence within the woman may constitute for her an embodiment of the original attack upon her person….she may find the courage and strength to love and let live even the one whose presence embodies the attack of her enemy. But, again, we cannot claim that such a decision would be the only way to follow Christ” (14).

I don’t know. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to carry to term a child who was conceived in violence, no matter with intent to parent or to place the child for adoption. I don’t doubt that the mother would be ambivalent at best toward the child she carried, and that the pregnancy would indeed constitute a sort of re-living of the original violence.

But this is one of the places where I found the book to be particularly thin. There are a few more sentences in this section, but what I’ve quoted here is the gist of it. Even if we only consider things from the woman’s point of view--What about the woundedness that most women experience for the rest of their lives after an abortion? Will choosing to perpetrate another form of violence upon her person somehow negate the first act? Won’t it only compound the pain and the regrets? Meilaender simply doesn’t ask, much less answer, these questions. This seemed like an almost offhand treatment of a tremendously difficult situation.

All in all, I think the book is best where is serves as a review of what's at stake and a starting point for thinking about some of the stuff that we tend to neglect till we or someone we love is in a crisis (organ donation, end-of-life stuff, etc.) Probably a good resource for pastors to have on hand, yada yada.

Stay tuned for book review, Part II: Meilaender Meanders; or, Watching a Bioethicist Wiggle around the Topic of Contraception.


Rebekah said...

Meilaender's been on my poop list ever since his banal equivocations on contraception in First Things--sounds like his abortion position is similarly reasoned. :P

I'm looking forward to Part II, so try to keep that baby in the right place long enough for us to get it!

Pr. H. R. said...

I've read very little Meilaender but have heard him give an extended talk on marriage, life, contraception, etc. at a conference.

I've got the same reaction as Reb. Mary. He's Mr. Conventional Wisdom. He gives the impression of never wanting to be seen as too radical. He's polite in the worst sense of the word. Is marriage for procreation? Of course. But it would be impolite to insist that a whole marriage always had to be open to God's gift of life: so contraception is left to the responsible choices of the baptized.

Life starts at conception? Of course it does. But, well, there are these hard cases and, especially since I'm a man, well gosh, who am I to proclaim that I really do mean that with all its consequences.

"not the only way of following Christ." May the Lord call him to repentance and forgive him for that rupture of the 2nd commandment.


Reb. Mary said...

First of all, I would like to point out that there's some debate as to where the "right place" for this baby is right now. :P

I think the "politeness" thing is right on. More later (maybe).