What Would Jesus Do with a Bioethical Decision?

John Kilner’s short answer to this question is this: Jesus would make the 2013--8decision—whether it’s about birth issues, death issues, or issues in between—based not on autonomy or utility, but on dignity.  This answer Dr. Kilner unpacked in a variety of ways at the bioethics conference earlier this month.  His four plenary talks addressed these themes:

  • Challenges to Human Life and Dignity That Will Rock Your World
  • Life on the Line: The Dangers of Under-treating and Over-treating in End-of-Life Decisions
  • Having a Baby the New-Fashioned Way
  • Closing Reflections: The Revolutionary Significance of Being Created in the Image of God

Human dignity arises from the image of God.  In contrast to autonomy (doing what seems right to and for me) and utility (doing what serves best the greatest number of people), dignity guides bioethical decisions through a respect for human life as created in the image of God.  So we should work for human flourishing, being careful to aim at the flourishing which only God can define.  And we should defend dignity winsomely and constructively, not by mere criticism.

Using this basic framework, Dr. Kilner explored bioethical birth issues such as how to respond to infertility in light of the many bio-technical fertility options available.  One out of six couples faces fertility issues, yet most churches do not address this painful reality.  Many Christians therefore rely solely on advice and direction given by medical professionals.  How should believers think through options like IVF and surrogacy?  Dr. Kilner helped us map out a pathway.  He also explored end-of-life issues, helping us avoid the bioethical mistakes of under-treatment and over-treatment.

In his talk that focused on the image of God, Dr. Kilner presented an alternative to the traditional view.  His plea was that an understanding of God’s image as consisting primarily in certain human traits is inadequate and, in fact, has historically led to many assaults on human dignity by denying the presence of God’s image when the traits are lacking.  As a summary of his new book, this talk was thought-provoking and far-reaching in its implications.

The conference also featured nine workshops addressing a variety of themes related to bioethics, including modern-day eugenics, the theology of suffering, responding to loss and disability, sexuality in today’s world, caring for the dying, physician assisted suicide, and how to make medical and financial decisions today in preparation for tomorrow’s crises.

Attendees included pastors, lay church leaders, chaplains, healthcare professionals, educators, and students—all representing arenas of life where bioethical realities and challenges will increasingly confront us in the days to come.

Audio recordings of Dr. Kilner’s talks and selected workshops are available on our website, together with PowerPoint presentations and the conference booklet.  An excellent resource for further exploration of bioethical issues is Why the Church Needs Bioethics.