Christian Bioethics: A Guide for the Perplexed by Agneta Sutton – a Fulcrum book review

'Christian Bioethics: A Guide for the Perplexed', Agneta Sutton

(T&T Clark, 2008, 180pp)

by Andrew Goddard

There can be little doubt – especially given the recent controversies over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill – that Christians need to learn how to think and speak about bioethics. This book ably does what it claims – provide a guide for the perplexed – and should be turned to by any Christian seeking a way through this minefield.

The guide covers a wide range of subjects over 11 chapters. These focus on traditional medical ethics issues such as; the status of the embryo, the nature of personhood, abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technologies, genetics, transplants, experimentation on adults and children, but the last two (not as fully integrated chapters) deal with issues relating to life more generally, discussing animals and ecology (with a rather intriguing focus on Gaia).

The chapters are short (most are 12-15 pages), helpfully sub-divided and easy-to-read. While clearly the book’s argument is clearest if read as a whole, I think each chapter or even sub-section could be dipped into or referred to without knowledge of the rest of the book.

The central thesis of the book is that there are two schools of thought in bioethics. These are broadly a secular, utilitarian or consequentialist approach represented by writers such as Peter Singer (probably the most cited author in the book) and an older tradition – Hippocratic and Christian – which Sutton takes as represented by the Roman Catholic church.

Much of the book outlines the debates and issues with reference to these two schools. Although I believe this captures a fundamental division in the field of bioethics and is helpful and well-explained for those who are ‘perplexed’, at times it means simplifying complex issues and not doing justice to the variety of Christian voices. The schema is also more helpful in some chapters - in relation to abortion and euthanasia it cashes out primarily in terms of quality versus sanctity of life - than in others. One of the consequences of using this framework is that there is relatively little appeal to Scripture (one of the fullest discussions of biblical texts, even then rather brief, is in relation to animals) and some of the broader theological issues (so helpfully discussed in Meilaender’s Bioethics: A Primer for Christians) are not given as much emphasis as some would like. Perhaps related to how well the issues fit the schema, in some places the discussion is largely descriptive (eg on gene therapy) and at times too brief (eg on hunting).

Despite these cautions, Sutton clearly knows the field well having worked in it since the mid-1980s and she is skilled at explaining a wide range of complex scientific and ethical issues in a way non-experts can understand (although at times more detail may have helped eg in the brief discussion of ‘double effect’). Although she interacts with a number of authors and has a useful 9 page bibliography, there are, nevertheless, some intriguing omissions - Biggar’s recent Aiming to Kill on euthanasia (which doesn’t fit neatly into her schema) is not referred to at all (nor Deane Drummond’s Genetics and Christian Ethics) and Song’s Human Genetics: Fabricating the Future is in the bibliography but not mentioned in the main text. Perhaps most surprising, given the emphasis on Roman Catholic thought, William E. May’s Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life – one of the best general accounts from that tradition – is not listed.

A helpful glossary of scientific terms is provided but a list of ‘further reading’ in each chapter would perhaps have helped readers wishing to explore in more depth the issues discussed. The book has a few production errors (eg a para from p110 repeated on p111, ‘1985’ appearing instead of ‘1995’ on p75) but its detailed contents pages and helpful index make it easy for any reader to track down its treatment of any subject or author covered.

For those wanting to think through the full range of bioethical issues, the solidly evangelical Matters of Life and Death by John Wyatt remains a great resource but is now getting dated (1998) and is quite a lengthy book. A new edition in 2005 of Meilaender’s short Bioethics: A Primer for Christians was therefore a welcome development and alongside that must now be added this volume by Sutton which has the added advantage of not only a wider range of issues being covered (including such recent controversies as hybrid embryos) but also of engaging more directly with secular thought.

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is on the Fulcrum Leadership Team

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