Conference of European Churches Bioethics Consultation (Part IΙ)

8 January 2013

Dr. Omar van den Broek, general secretary of the Belgian Muslim community, presented the Islamic approach to the issue on the basis of the principles of the Koran and Sufism. He developed his positions in the light of the historical inter-reaction between the Western and Muslim worlds at the time when medical knowledge and thought were being exchanged.

The Orthodox attitude to the bioethics issue was set out by Stavros Baloyannis, Professor of Neurology and Doctor of Theology. Professor Baloyannis made a comprehensive presentation about the manner in which Orthodox theology considers the meaning of human life. The basic concepts on which he built his paper were life as a gift of God, deification or glorification, the participation of people in the life of God and the potential for a person to live as someone who is the image of God. He paid particular attention to the notion of our participation in the Cross of Christ, as the only proven way for the spiritual handling of pain and suffering. The speaker then went on to describe the concept of sickness in the holistic light of our psychosomatic unity. As bases for the search for answers to the questions of bioethics he highlighted the virtue of discernment self-surrender into the hands of God, and being always within the community of the Church.

Dr. Brendan McCarthy put forward the positions of Protestant theology. At the outset he made it clear that, because of the multitude of Protestant churches, it impossible to present a comprehensive Protestant overview of artificial human enhancement. One might talk, however, about commonly accepted positions within Protestantism, which overlap with those of other Christian traditions. He noted: “It is not possible to divorce the actual or potential practice of enhancement interventions from the wider process in which they are set. This process includes (i) the motivation for developing such interventions, (ii) the means by which they are developed, (iii) the safety and efficacy of particular interventions and (iv) the potential societal, as well as individual, effects of human enhancement”. He posed the question of where, in our intervention in nature, the dividing line is which changes us from co-creators into violators. He made the point that in modern European thought, including Protestant, there are two views of people as a species. One is that we are “fixed”, distinct from other species, with various distinctions being clearly delineated and the other a gradualist and holistic approach is often preferred, with human life being seen as part of a greater continuum of life. “Those who tend towards the ‘fixed’ end of the spectrum tend also towards limiting novel neurotechnologies to therapeutic purposes while those who take a ‘fluid’ approach are more likely to be open to utilising neurotechnologies for enhancement purposes”. In its ethical view, Protestantism is based on the Scriptures, which always have a prominent position, as well as rationality, because of its relationship with the Enlightenment. “There is tension evident between those whose essential understanding of humanity is based on the significance of the Fall and on those who believe in the inherent goodness of creation and the concept of the Image of God”.

The remaining sessions dealt with separate issues related to human enhancement, both on a philosophical and theological plane as well as the technical, medical, individual and social ones.

Dr. Ulrich Körtner, the prominent Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Vienna, placed as the fundament of bioethical thinking the view that ethics, in particular bioethics, is nothing other than applied anthropology. The question of “what should I do” always resolves itself as “who am I?”. The evolution and promises of science and technology face us with questions which were unknown in the past and place us before a new kind of anthropology, that of anthropo-technology, what he calls homo fabricatus. Many intellectuals talk about the passing of the age of humans and the coming of the time of trans-humans, whose potential will have been enhanced and features altered to such an extent that they will hardly resemble the people of the past. Christian anthropology puts the “New Person” in the place of the trans-human. He also notes the dangers of attributing eschatological features to bio-medical technology: “If the ‘therapeutic imperative’ is misunderstood as a categorical imperative, medicine very quickly becomes inhumane– to the point of unethical experiments on human beings”.

Dr. Nikkinen, Lecturer in Protestant Theology at the University of Helsinki, linked the issue of human enhancement with the way in which theology views human progress. First Auguste Comteand then the later thought of the Enlightenment separated the notion of progress and human destiny from anything metaphysical. Referring to the well-known Byzantine scholar J.B. Bury, Nikkinen said that super-optimistic secular progressivism is the illegitimate grandchild of a theological super-optimistic anthropology. The ultimate question is whether human enhancement really is progress. Before this question is answered, however, the terms “enhancement”, “scientific progress” and “medical progress” need to be clarified. This task cannot be assigned only to medical, political and legal circles. It must also take into account the concerns, the metaphysical concepts and the religious faith of the societies at which it is directed.

Dr. Stefanie Schardien, Professor at the Protestant School of the German University of Hildesheim began her paper with the statement that “Christianity has a lot to say about the ‘improvement’ of life” At many points in the Old and New Testaments it says that the faithful will enjoy a life better on many levels, the message culminating in the Resurrection and Eternity. Indeed, some theologians go as far as to interpret biotechnological enhancement as a necessary human step in the history of salvation and feel that we will regain our creational nature lost at the time of the fall. Many others have reacted against these ideas, arguing that this is a misreading of the passages which speak metaphorically or about spiritual well-being. Yet others clearly express their longing for a relief of sorrows and distress which is not supposed to be postponed until eternity. Their hopes for a life in beauty, joy and satisfaction are not contrasting earthly desires but rather draw on what humans wish for in this world and time. All these view demonstrate that bioethical arguing with Biblical ideas remains difficult. She also pointed out the need for a better understanding and analysis of the English term “enhancement” and that, when translating it into other languages, terms such as “fostering”, “strengthening”, “enforcing”, etc. may be more appropriate, in order to avoid misunderstanding.

Dr. Marianne Springer Kremser, Professor of Psychiatrics, Psycholanalyis and Psychotherapy at Vienna University gave the proceedings a somewhat different tone. She referred to the human body, especially that of the female, as being on the end of cultural changes and concepts. The demand of the times, particularly in today’s world, for a particular kind of appearance, particularly as regards the female body, can prove a trigger that influences people’s perception and psyche regarding their external appearance and the way in which they deal with it. This often leads to pathological depression, to which, according to statistics, women are more susceptible. Improvement and enhancement of the features of the female body either for health or cosmetic reasons become grounds for exploitation by profit-seeking companies. Dr. Kremser ended by saying that the eugenic perspective of enhancement has dominated discussions, rather than the various therapeutic ones, which are doubtful as regards their probable benefits. This should be taken into account in the final ethical reckoning, on the basis of different value systems.

Dr. Henriette Krug, from the Department of Neurology at the Charité Clinic in Berlin, and a theologian, presented examples of enhancement and improvement of the intellectual and emotional characteristics of patients subjected to Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). This method is used in the treatment of severe neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s and epilepsy. During its application certain side benefits have been observed, such as the strengthening of the memory, better management of depression and so on. This has led researchers to examine its potential for human enhancement. It is, however, often accompanied by well-known side effects and there is a suspicion that there may be others still not discerned.

 Dr Donald Bruce, of Edinethics Ltd., Edinburgh and rapporteur for the study, began with the question of whether human enhancement is attempting a re-working of God’s creation. Although no-one would deny that a distinction can be made between therapeutic and non-therapeutic applications, it is still obvious that the prospects and the discussion go far beyond the medical context. From the moment people start looking for salvation with technological means, without God, in other words when they become trans-humans, this leads to a quasi-religious but erroneous endeavour. So for any safe account of the human enhancement to be made, we need to have recourse to holistic criteria and not merely examine the practice in a fragmented way. He notes that “God is not more interested in ‘superman’, but with ‘everyman’ and with the unique response each human being can make”. Although a Christian does not seek them, history shows that long-suffering and faith have brought many people to the point of discovering, in pain, God’s love and care for humanity.

To the question of whether there are improvements to human nature which might be acceptable through the efforts at enhancement, he answered that the question is complex but we might say that it is far from certain that enhancement and improvements will always turn out for the best. Increased night vision, for example, might assist us in driving more safely, but, on the other hand it might tempt us to drive more quickly and irresponsibly. So again there is the parameter of moral responsibility and the training this implies. This means that human enhancement can never be considered a “messiah” that will solve social and everyday problems. The motives which move us towards seeking an enhancement of human nature vary and may be practical, competitive, selfish, aesthetic or altruistic. But it is a huge mistake for people to think that they can achieve any ethical or spiritual enhancement through technology.

On the third day of the consultation, members divided into four work groups with the aim of assessing the papers and declaring views and observations which would then be published as part of the proceedings. The undersigned took part in the same work group as Professor Stavros Baloyannis. The result of this was that the Orthodox views and observations were published in the same document and expressed in a unified manner, by Revd. Carol Wardman, representative of the Church of Wales, who was responsible for drawing up the text.

Prof. Baloyannis expressed the view that human enhancement could be acceptable only on condition that it did not impede our relationship with God, did not promote human vanity and that it was carried out for the glory of God and the benefit of humankind.

The undersigned, as representative of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, made the following points:

A. I referred to the importance of the notion of dignity in bioethics, as this had been discussed at the consultation, and pointed to the fluidity in the signification and use of the term. I stressed that, for Orthodox theology, human dignity is of particular importance since it is associated with the teaching of the Church concerning the Person/Hypostasis. The Orthodox view of the person as an image of the Triune Divinity lends the concept of dignity a content which is both ontological and profound. It does not see people merely as members of a particular society which recognizes their value, rights and obligations, but places them within the perspective of eternity, through which their spatiotemporal presence on earth is validated.

B. On the much-discussed issue of the search for the boundaries between therapeutic and eugenic applications of enhancement, I noted that first we need to define what illness is. To this end, I suggested we look again at the 55th question and answer in the Great Rule by Basil the Great, where, through the principles of the Biblical understanding of human nature and of the ascetic life, he defines illness and how people should deal with the use of medical science, which he considers a gift of God, so long as we recognize its limitations.

C. As a third point, which was given less attention than it deserved at the consultation, I mentioned the contribution and role of parents in the decision on enhancement/improvement interventions in the genome of their as yet unborn children. In other words, to what extent do parents have the right to decide on heteronomous interventions in the genetic make-up of their child? Any such decision would irrevocably affect the development of the child and its descendants without it ever having been asked. There is, then a conflict between the freedom of the parents in their reproductive decisions and the future freedom of the child regarding the formation of its personality.

It is worth noting that all the observations from the Orthodox side were warmly welcomed. They sparked fruitful discussions and were included without omissions in the final text of the work group in which we participated.

After this, all the work groups were called and their results and views published. Finally the Presidency of the Bioethics Group of the Conference of European Churches drew up and published a brief common statement which was also posted on the Conference’s official web site.

The general opinion of the undersigned is that the consultation was crowned with success as far as its aims were concerned. The papers were of a high standard, the updates on new discoveries important, the dialogue especially fruitful, the thinking multi-layered and the respect for differing points of view unfailing. It was the opinion of all those who took part, and this was published in the official communiqué, that human enhancement through technology is an issue which breeds ethical, social and spiritual challenges, which churches need to think seriously about and take a stand upon.