Distinctive Features of Orthodox Bioethics

4 February 2016
[Previous Publication:http://bit.ly/1QrAD3A]


1) The Orthodox view is not centred on the individual. It does not regard people as individuals with particular actions, rights and obligations. It is person-centred; each person is understood as being related to society. People are not is not self-contained, but are linked to their family, their fellows, society at large, to the Church and God.

I shall mention one example from the field of transplants. Secular transplant ethics is based on individual rights, on the right to life and death or the right of someone to dispose of their organs as they judge best. There is no mention in the laws of what happens if relatives disagree. But such laws cannot in fact be implemented in practice in our countries. In difficult moments, sensibilities, personal criteria, overcome any law. This is why we, as a Church, say that any consent must also pass through the framework of the family[6]. Family approval is stronger than personal will so long as this is respected. Because the first is a relationship, while the second is an individual right. Love is what is ‘great’ and ‘copious’ and the value of protecting life follows this.

Medical Crime

2) The Orthodox view has no connection with scholasticism, it does not seek scholastic answers to specific problems which, by their nature, are often mysteries beyond our ken. To a whole host of bioethical problems, the truth does not provide a complete matrix which is digestible and totally comprehensible. This is why the thinking that seeks perfect, sufficient and immediate answers to any and every question is an indication of arrogance and lack of respect for the mystery of our ignorance. Orthodox Bioethics certainly aims to be precise, but is more concerned with practical accommodation, in that it is pastoral.

So the answer to the questions of whether the products of cloning are embryos, a person with a soul, or at what moment and exactly how that soul settles in the body and what its relationship is to the various stages of the development of the embryo is that we simply do not know. We respect embryos from the first moment of conception as containing a person, not because we know precisely, but because they conceal a mystery which we shall never understand.

The same is true of death. Theologically, we do not define it as the cessation of the function of the heart nor as the death of the brain. The separation of the soul from the body takes place under conditions that are beyond our ability to understand. Doctors can tell when the body dies, but  not when the soul is separated from the body. This is and will remain a mystery. This is why we leave the dead body alone, as it is.  We simply bury it, not merely because death has been legally certified, but when decomposition obliges us to do so. An exception to this is when there is consent, out of love, to give life to others. As ‘the most excellent way’[7], love overcomes all reservations and logical arguments. This is why, if we are to study transplants ethically, the only way to do so is to evaluate organ donation from a theological point of view.

[To Be Continued]

[6] How is it possible for the family, which is paying, should be called upon to accept the death of a person dear to them as a medical confirmation and not something with a personal dimension (the person seems to be breathing, as if in a coma, perhaps like a vegetable, is still warm)? How is it possible for this family to accept a sudden and abrupt severance of their hopes simply because the law says so?

[7] I Cor. 12, 31