Does religion have a role in bioethics?

The notion that religious convictions have no place in medicine or bioethics is widespread and growing. After the Canadian Supreme Court recently found that euthanasia and assisted suicide are constitutional, for instance, there were immediate suggestions that doctors who refused to assist on religious grounds might have to find other employment.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar argues that this is wrong. First, because it assumes that only secularity is rational. “The ideal of secular medicine as a realm of reason and therefore as untroubled by deep metaphysical and moral disagreements is a fantasy,” he says.

Second, because religion itself, or at least the Christianity which he professes, is not irrational. Respecting other beliefs, it seeks to persuade with rational arguments.

“Positively, if I, a religious believer, am going to succeed in persuading you, an agnostic or atheist or different kind of religious believer, of my moral view, then I will have to show you that your view has weaknesses or problems, that these cannot be adequately repaired in your terms, but that they can be repaired in mine.”

Does Christianity add anything to bioethical discourse? Surprisingly, perhaps for some critics of Christianity in the public square, Biggar says that its first contribution is good manners. Respect for human dignity and love for the truth, both characteristically Christian, support a style of dialogue which is even-tempered, respectful and inquiring.

More importantly, though, its distinctive views of the fatherhood of God and the Incarnation give rise to convictions which underpin much of contemporary bioethics. “One general instance of such content is a high, humanist view of human dignity, which is not an inevitable part of the cosmic furniture and which we cannot afford to take for granted. Other, more specific instances are the notions that individual autonomy is properly bounded by social obligation and a special sensitivity to the plight of the poorer and weaker.”

Stuff and nonsense, fumed Brian D. Earp, an Oxford researcher and an incoming Associate Editor at the JME. Good manners and respectful conversation are the hallmark of philosophy, not religion, and there is no God the Father to ground respect for other humans. And what about Savita*, the woman who died in Ireland because she was denied an abortion on religious grounds? “Some people will feel a shiver go down their spines—and not only the non-religious” at talk of religion having a role in medicine.

* This does not appear to be true. A 2014 inquiry by Ireland’s Health Information and Quality Authority showed that Savita’s death had nothing to do with the abortion law. It was caused by incompetence.

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