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The Spirituality of Illness – Technology & Ethics

September 12, 2008

I mentioned in my last post on the Spirituality of Illness that I am the proud recipient of a tissue valve made from parts of a pig. I guess that at some level that makes me the beneficiary of a xeno-transplant, the transplantation of tissues or organs between different species.

Understandably people get squeamish about this. They argue over the dangers of introducing new diseases across species, or of contravening the rights of, in my case, the pig. Animals have rights too. And yet since about 1964 hundreds of thousands of people have been kept alive by advances in tissue valve replacement. Even more dramatically, one person at least has been kept alive for a time by the transplantation of a baboons heart. Others have benefited from the kidneys of chimpanzees and so on.

I have certainly not in any way plumbed the depths of the theological issues here, but I do realise that almost every advance in medical science and technology brings with it new ethical dilemmas.

The Human Genome Project has made things even more complex. Gene therapy, recombinant DNA and cloning bring the possibility that in the future I may be able to grow my own replacement valve with my own tissue and dna I guess. But then what of cloning replicants in order to harvest organs? Is that purely sci-fi?

Stem cell research is always a hot topic it seems. What if stem cells from my body could be used to grow a valve? Bring it on, I say. What if those stem cells were harvested from the placenta of a recently born child? An aborted foetus? Embryos created for research purposes?

It gets more complex doesn’t it? And does that mean we should stop the science? I don’t think so.

But the only real point I want to make at this stage is to say that all of our ethical positions have pastoral dimensions.

Without the knowledge and experience of my condition I dare say I might have theologised differently about some of these issues, but the real personal experience has influenced my theology, and that seems to me to be an inevitability.

It’s not that I want to say that we Christians shouldn’t take theological positions on issues like abortion, or stem cell research for instance. Of course we should. But it is to say that when we adopt these positions we must also take responsibility for the pastoral, relational dimensions of our position. So if it’s no! to abortion then we need to find some way of sharing the burdens of women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Not just for the period of the pregnancy, but perhaps for the entire life of the mother and child. And that’s not even to begin to think about responsibility for the wider family circles involved. And if it’s yes! to abortion, then there are different but equally onerous responsibilities.

It is also to be aware that life sometimes just happens, despite our best attempts at living true to our theological convictions at any one time.

[Note: although this post is about illness, I don’t mean to equate pregnancy with an illness. I use it as the clearest example I could think of where technologies and ethics intersect with human life]

  1. Thanks for this one. It linked to my tangential thought: Was just wondering this week whether, if we can persuade Westminster to allow NI to legislate for itself on Human Embryology & Fertilisation, we have the kind of culture that will embrace every child, every adult, carrying every kind of brokenness… If we did, we wouldn’t need to legislate.

    To be pro-life needs to mean being pro-all lives (at least all human ones – we’ll get to the pigs eventually) and that has to mean caring for people whose choices and value-systems and perceptions of what is possible or survivable are different from mine. (In other words, if we’re going to get back to the old abortion stuff, I hope we’ll find ways to change the culture rather than attacking the people in the eye of the storm.)

  2. I agree Cheryl, the idea of a ‘consistent ethic of life’ as Cardinal Benardin of Chicago put it, so to be anti-abortion is not necessarily to be pro-life. Arguably Sarah Palin falls into this category…she could shoot and barbecue the pig without turning a well-coiffed hair.

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