Four Questions for Evangelical Bioethics – A Response to Leonardo de Chirico

I am responding to Leonardo de Chirico’s article not as a theologian, nor as a philosopher, but as a scientist, who has lectured, debated, broadcast and written about bioethical issues for the last twenty-five years and more.  My interest is primarily in practical bioethics, and as such I serve on the Central Committee of LIFE, the largest pro-life charity in the UK.  I was, in 1982, the co-founder of Evangelicals for LIFE.  And I have written two relevant books (Responding to the Culture of Death – A Primer of Bioethical Issues. (2001), [ISBN 1 903087 26 0] and The Edge of Life – Dying, Death and Euthanasia. (2002), [ISBN 1 903087 30 9]), produced by Day One Publications, Leominster.  More details about me and my freelance work can be found at

Let me begin by making three general points:
  I have read the article as it appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Foundations, in its entirely, at least five times, and I am still not clear about its purpose and intent.  It is pretty opaque stuff.  Several months ago, the same article was submitted to Evangelicals Now and its editor asked my opinion of it.  I replied, ‘With due respect to your readership, I think they will be foxed [by it].’  So, my assessment has not changed.

2]  As a critique of the current status and direction of evangelical bioethics, the article is pretty thin on any correctives, Scriptural or otherwise.  For example, on p. 9, de Chirico states that, ‘… the Bible strongly warns us not to elevate one element of creation to a "sacred" status.’  Some biblical references would better press this argument.  One is left with the feeling that much of the article is casuistic wordplay – I can find little with which to wrestle intelligently.

3]  The article is too vague.  If, indeed, we evangelicals have a feeble basis and moreover, we are going in the wrong direction, then Leonardo de Chirico has a duty to supply some concrete examples of our errors.  If we are off beam, then presumably de Chirico should have no trouble supplying the damning evidence, such as, some dubious quotations, some false strategies, etc.  So where are they?  Upon what is his case based?  In the absence of such evidence, we are unsure exactly who/what de Chirico is attempting to reprove.

Notwithstanding the above, let me attempt to tackle each of de Chirico’s four major areas of disapproval:
1]  Natural theology and Christian ethics

Natural theology is a largely foreign territory for me.  Nevertheless, my understanding is that de Chirico’s main/only criticism in this area appears to be our lack of emphasis on relationships.  But I would contend that we already, and often, stress these in terms of a) horizontal relationships, primarily those between the child and mother (and secondarily, as they affect father, family and society), and b) the vertical relationship between God, as the Giver and Sustainer of all life, and in particular, human life.

Moreover, we are not guilty, as Chirico would have us, because we have always considered the man, the fetus, the zygote to be more than mere biological life.  Why?  Because human life bears the imago Dei, as nothing else in the created order does.  Yet arguments based on ‘humanity’, as apparently favoured by de Chirico, are about as confused and confusing (and dangerous) as those based on ‘personhood’, or ‘consciousness’, or ‘ensoulment’.

After that, I remain baffled by de Chirico’s proposals in this area.  He needs to tell me more about my ‘ontological presuppositions’ and their naughty ‘Aristotelian-Thomistic interpretations’!

2]  The sanctity of life
De Chirico dislikes the phrase ‘sanctity of life’.  I do too.  I am not sure of its precise meaning and that is chiefly why I use it so rarely.  I’ve checked and it occurs eight times in my two books – I personally use it twice (once in each book) and the other occurrences are quotations from John Stott (three times), Francis Schaeffer (once), William Lecky (once) and Helga Kuhse & Peter Singer (once).

If, and when, I use it, I would, at least, always insert the adjective ‘human’.  After all, ‘human life’ is the key focus of the bioethical issues with which we are concerned – they are related to men, women and children, not possums, dolphins, or bald eagles.

Sanctity, as derived from the Latin and thus associated with saintliness, is not a very easy or useful word for evangelicals to use.  Even so, the phrase ‘sanctity of life’ is surely nothing other than a bit of shorthand.  It covers those attributes that we wish to affirm, namely, that human life is unique, special, inviolable, non-expendable, etc. ‘ Pro-life’ is another such phrase, which conveys a general meaning to most people, though it should be noted that it has, from time to time, been hijacked by some abortionists as applying to them.  And I do not expect de Chirico is any more enamoured by the phrase ‘culture of death’, which I and the previous Pope use/used frequently.  We can endlessly unpack and always criticise all such language, but that can degenerate into a fairly academic and sterile exercise.

3]  Pro-life versus pro-choice
As intimated in 2], the ‘pro-life’ camp is pretty large and ill-defined (just like the ‘evangelical camp’), but that does not deter us from associating with it and from defining it, or at least defending it, in our terms.  And de Chirico is quite right, the biblical pro-life view is based on both principles AND consequences (see, Responding to the Culture of Death, p. 66), though evangelicals will inevitably put a greater stress on the former rather than the latter.  Of course, such a principled stance brings us, from time to time, into conflict with our co-belligerents within the pro-life camp – for example, we abhor the actions of those, who, through shooting or other illegal and violent acts, believe that they are advancing the pro-life cause.  But none of this means that our disagreements with those in the pro-choice camp are any the less profound.  There is a real gulf between us and them, and it is unbridgeable. Look at their fruit – abortion, infanticide and euthanasia – I think we all know where the battlelines are drawn.  The trouble with the word ‘choice’ is that, in the context of contemporary bioethics, it means, by and large, one plain outcome – death.

4]  Christian Hippocratic and modern medicine
De Chirico’s article underplays the importance of so-called Hippocratic medicine.  With its catchphrase of ‘first do no harm’, it typified the sort of medicine that was protective, responsible and caring.  Not everything outside the orbit of Christian practice is wrong, and I have no trouble in approving such good, though essentially pagan, endeavours.  Two cheers for the good Samaritans!  Similarly, Roman Catholics, while so wrong ecclesiastically, are not automatically wrong bioethically.

Contrary to de Chirico’s thinking, I would contend that so-called Hippocratic-Christian medicine is not a deliberate synthesis. Rather it has come about as a recognition of the origins of Western medicine, and as a means of partially explaining the foundations of principled-compassionate medicine, the sort we all admire.  It is also a recognition that not all medical practitioners are bad – there are some excellent humanistic doctors out there, who, from time to time, have fixed even me!

By way of conclusion, let me rehearse the truism that all of us are culturally bound.  De Chirico clearly, with the Vatican in his backyard, has a greater conflict with Roman Catholicism than do most evangelicals within the UK.  When necessary I too distance myself from Rome, but I also acknowledge that it is Roman Catholics who have long been the carriers of the pro-life torch in the UK.  Without their work, the UK, and probably the worldwide, pro-life cause would be considerably weaker.  Shame on us!  And it remains true, as I have written, that ’Roman Catholic moral theology, which has a longer history and is generally more developed than anything modern evangelical Christians have so far achieved …’ (The Edge of Life, p. 192).

Nevertheless, if we evangelicals are misguided, or simply wrong, if we have misread, or misused our Bibles, if our cause can be strengthened, then, come on, let’s have the correctives, let’s have the truth, let’s have proper and better strategies.  If the need for such reformation can be identified, and if it can be applied, then few will be happier than I.

Of course, I do not hesitate to believe that we could all do our bioethics better – I certainly hope so.  But de Chirico will contribute little to this end by merely picking on a few aspects of evangelical thinking and severely reprimanding us for being somehow wayward.  Smacking the child with no explanation is such bad parenting.

But I am ready for any constructive criticism and especially constructive answers.  I have no problem with anyone having a pop at me, the pro-life movement, evangelical participation, and so on.  However, most such criticism (and I’ve had a shedful of it over the years) tends to be tendentious because it typically allows the critics to absolve themselves from any practical pro-life involvement.  If Leonardo de Chirico really does have some weighty analyses, then we must hear them.  However, from reading his article, I must say that I have my reservations.

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