CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN CHURCHES
CONFERENCE DES EGLISES EUROPEENNES
KONFERENZ EUROPAEISCHER KIRCHEN


POSITION PAPER
A THEOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK FOR BIOETHICS

The Working Group on Bioethics of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) Church and Society Commission was established in 1999 with the following terms of reference :

  1. To follow the work of the Council of Europe, the European Commission and the European Parliament in the field of bioethics and biotechnology, especially on the elaboration of additional protocols to the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, and on the work of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies of the European Commission.
  2. To prepare contributions and comments on the activities of the European institutions on these topics.
  3. To keep the Executive Committee, and through it, the Church and Society Commission of CEC informed of its activities.
  4. To take part, as an observer, in the work of the CDBI (Steering Commission for Bioethics) of the Council of Europe.

The Working Group has to continue the work of the previous Working Group of EECCS, the European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society (1992-1999), which consisted of representatives from European Protestant churches and ecumenical associations. The Working Group now also includes members representing Orthodox churches.

This position paper can be seen as the Groupís visiting card, aiming to formulate a theological framework for bioethics against the background of the far-reaching developments which are taking place in the field of the biomedical sciences and biotechnology. Increasingly, advances in these areas, such as medically assisted procreation, genetic modification of animals and plants, and cloning, are raising ambivalent reactions inside and outside the churches. On one hand they evoke hope for new therapies and drugs, on the other they bring along profound concern about fundamental norms, values and beliefs.

The approach taken in our churches is to allow and encourage open dialogue on these matters, guided by the wisdom of the Bible and the Holy Spirit. For some of us the Church Tradition represented in the canons of Councils and Church Fathersí writings is also an important and authoritative source of inspiration, being seen as a rule of faith and Christian life. The task of the churches is to help believers to take their responsibility - both individually and as a community of faith - in following our Lord Jesus Christ in everyday life with the aim of "a good life with and for the others, in structures which are just" (P. Ricoeur). To use some biblical metaphors: Our common calling (diaconia) is to be good stewards, that the world, created and redeemed by God, our Father in Jesus Christ, may become a place where life is worth living for all creatures. The task of the Working Group is to be seen in the same perspective.

Many ethical, philosophical and theological questions result from the above mentioned developments in the biomedical sciences and biotechnology. Is it morally acceptable to make use of medically assisted procreation or to use human embryos for research? Is it permitted to change the genetic make-up of animals and plants to make them more useful for human purposes? What about xenotransplantation (transplantation of animal organs to humans) and cloning? Where should we draw the lines and why? What is the place of human beings in nature? And what is the place of science and technology in society? These and many other questions call for profound bioethical reflection from the perspective of Christian faith.

In the perspective of Christian faith, the universe exists as a result of Godís creative activity and of his "over-abundant grace" (St John Damascene); it always depends on his beneficent will. Aiming to place all that exists in a meaningful context, it is a way of looking at the world. As such it is compatible with and complementary to various scientific theories and hypotheses (such as evolution), but it looks beyond them. .

Creation, as Godís work, cannot be identical with God. God is not the universe. Nature cannot be an object of worship. The world should rather be seen as a place and an environment where life is meant to be worth living, for all creatures. Therefore it may be called the "theatre of Godís glory" (Calvin).

Human beings are part of creation, but they have a special position in it: Man and woman are created "in the image of God" in order to "have dominion over" creation (Genesis 1.28). There is a tension between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In the light of Genesis 2.15 we think that "dominion" is not to be interpreted as domination but rather as a vocation "to work and to care for" the earth, i.e. to reflect Godís creative and caring relation to the world. In New Testament terms: It is the vocation to follow Jesus Christ, the true image of God. In view of bioethics, it may be interpreted as a vocation to responsible stewardship in the world. Therefore we would stress that this special status of humans implies a concern for animals and the environment.

By Godís grace, this common calling of humankind remains valid, in spite of sin and evil. It is obvious to all that this world is far from being a paradise. Human action is spoiled by sin, which in Biblical light can be seen as the violation of human vocation and of Godís commandments by an attitude of pride and selfishness. And creation is deeply harmed by evil. However, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians believe that God has intervened to rescue not only human beings but the whole of creation from its "bondage to decay" (Romans 8.21). Therefore, the gospel of resurrection may be seen as "vindication of creation" (O. OíDonovan), which means, as has already been indicated, that the human vocation to responsible stewardship is renewed. Because Jesus Christ is seen as the true "image of God" (e g. II Corinthians 4.4), every human being is invited to "follow" him or to "walk in the (his) Spirit".

In Christian ethics, this is taken very seriously: it means that neither nature as such, in spite of being Godís creation, nor culture can be the basis of Christian ethics. Because of the brokenness of creation, nature and culture are, from a normative perspective, ambiguous guides. They are to be interpreted, and if necessary corrected, in the light of the Gospel.

This does not mean, for Christians, that the answers are obvious in advance. The Bible is authoritative and much wisdom is stored in the Bible and in Christian tradition, but in most cases it is not possible to draw direct lines to specific moral questions of today (e.g. in the case of cloning and IVF). This presents new challenges and opportunities for understanding within constantly changing social circumstances. Developments in science and technology confront us with new ethical and other issues. Last but not least, there is plurality of opinion, not only in society but also in the churches. In the light of what is going on, there is much work to be done in Christian ethics, again and again. We look at it as a challenge to find out, for today and tomorrow, what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to "walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5.25). We plead for an open attitude, inside and outside the churches, resulting in open dialogue about moral ways into the future of our society.

The crossing of new frontiers by science and technology is one of the characteristics of humankind. And freedom of research is an important, hard-won value in Western culture (though the Christian church has often played a questionable role in this respect). Nevertheless, science and technology are not autonomous and value-free. They take place in a cultural, social and environmental context and should be servants of humanity, not its leaders. So they should serve "to make and to keep human life human" (P. Lehmann). It means that scientists, industrial managers and politicians have a public responsibility and must be aware that there are moral limits ("conscience des limites"), which can be at loggerheads with fame and gain. "Can do" does not imply "may do", let alone "must do". Moreover, the market is neither the decisive criterion in ethics nor its basic source. Research ethics and business ethics, in an independent and multidisciplinary setting, require constant attention. This world is meant to be a place where life is worth living for all creatures, now and in the future.

In the context of recent developments in biomedicine and biotechnology, "playing God" is a frequently used expression. In the perspective of Christian faith, its meaning is ambiguous: we may say that humans, created in the image of God, are called to be responsible stewards in the world. Mostly however, the term is used to point to the aspect of going beyond the bounds of human limitations, by assuming a role which is not ours to have. According to this notion, humans have neither the understanding nor the foresight to take sufficient care and responsibility to perform genetic modifications. In our view, there is certainly a need to follow developments critically, but extreme attitudes that nothing is allowed or everything is allowed are not justified. We should ask whether they infringe or support basic ethical and social values and whether they may be seen as responsible use of our skills and our position towards creation.

Although biblical understanding implies a certain form of anthropocentrism (a human-centred view of the creation), this has to be interpreted, as has been pointed out earlier, in terms of responsible stewardship in nature, which means an attitude of care, protection and prudence concerning flora and fauna. Being part of Godís creation, they have their own intrinsic value. Although they may be used, if necessary, for human health and welfare, they are not to be reduced to mere economic commodities in a competitive market.

 

Biomedical issues

Since it began in 1993, the Working Group first followed the development of the Oviedo European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, preparing public statements taken by EECCS, i.e. on Medically Assisted Procreation and the Protection of the Human Embryo. It then turned to other topics such as the EC (draft) Directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions (the so called "Patenting Directive") or cloning. It is also exploring the possibility of organising a conference on the position of various churches (including the Roman Catholic Church) on bioethics and biotechnology.

This section presents a few examples of biomedical issues on which the previous Working Group of EECCS has been concentrating. The public position statements taken both by EECCS and by the Church and Society Commission of CEC are contained in a specific white paper.

At the end of 1997, the Council of Europe adopted an additional Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine, on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings. The Protocol was signed on 12 January 1998 in Paris by 19 member states.

Human life, in the light of the Bible, is meant to be human in the full sense of the word. Although life in the biological sense (including genetic information) is a necessary condition for human life, the latter should not be reduced to the former. In other words, a person should not be reduced to her/his genetic make up. Human life is also relational, affective, cultural, spiritual. It may be seen as life bathed in Godís love and in that of oneís neighbour.

Because fertilisation technology can contribute to the well-being and happiness of human beings, there is no reason to be a priori against its development and application. There is, however, reason to be very careful, for this technology has to do with the origin of human life and the handling of human embryos. We want to make clear that what has been developed to help childless couples should not automatically be used as a key to open up other research areas. Moreover, childlessness as such is not a conclusive justification for any research whatsoever. In short, a slippery slope is looming which makes the above-mentioned notion of (political) "conscience de limites" very important.

Concerning the human embryo and foetus, given that a human being is not to be reduced to its DNA, Christian anthropology does not allow a separation of biological and relational aspects. Biological life in itself, isolated from the (relational) context in which it appears and develops, does not have absolute "ontological" significance. That is why speaking about a human embryo as a future child, or a person-to-be, should take place in a relational context, more specifically in a parental or marital context. However, because of modern technology, it depends (partly) on our decision, whether embryos outside the womb remain embedded in the net of human relationships or not. It is connected to the decision, whether an embryo is transferred into the womb of the future mother and may become a child. This increase of responsibility concerning the beginning of human life asks for clear and careful moral reasoning, in particular in view of the moral status of surplus embryos.

While we approve in general of medically assisted procreation, we would like to underline that we continue to understand, from a Christian perspective, children as a gift of God and not as a human right. However sad it may be not to have children, human life, in relationship with God and your neighbour, can be fruitful without having children. Fruitfulness in human life can be expressed in many and various ways.

We are called to follow God in Christ in his love for the poor, the weak, the sick and the lost. This certainly holds true in view of people with disabilities. This implies that research on people with disabilities is neither a priori wrong and in principle forbidden, nor mandatory. To give an example: if a drug against Alzheimerís disease is developed, there will inevitably be a period during which its use in Alzheimerís patients is untried and therefore experimental. In contrast to the World Medical Association, we still prefer the distinction between therapeutic research, which is directed towards the patientís own benefit, and non-therapeutic research which is for the future benefit of others. Properly conducted therapeutic research involving people with disabilities requires special ethical justification and additional safeguards. It may be justified only if there is evidence that the therapeutic benefits for the patient cannot be achieved by alternative ways of investigation, comprehensive precautions are taken on behalf of the patient, informed consent by a legally authorised guardian is given and the consent of the patient is available. We believe, however, that it would rarely, if ever, be justified to conduct non-therapeutic research on incapacitated people. The question is: how should our attitude of care become operational in these very difficult situations?

In economics, we must recover the notion of responsible stewardship as a modifying principle to the demands of profit and efficiency alone. It also sets constraints on how far models taken from the sphere of industrial mass production should be imported into the world of living things as biological material. This applies as much to traditional technologies of selective breeding as it does to cloning or patenting living organisms.

Some novel biotechnological developments will be beneficial, but others may abuse some aspects of creation for trivial human gain. The genetic modification of farm animals to produce medically useful proteins in their milk seems a beneficial and relatively non-invasive development, whereas xenotransplantation raises more serious problems. We must also challenge false or exaggerated claims made about biotechnology. The justification that genetic engineering will be essential to meet the growing food needs of the world is not borne out by the great majority of the applications, whose main motive is greater efficiency for producers of Western consumer foods, rather than the basic needs of those in the two-thirds world who simply do not have enough to eat, nor income to pay for food.

Concerning patenting, it is a matter of ethical concern that commercial demands are now tending to abuse the normal distinctions between what is alive and what is not, and what is discovery and what is human invention. The mere knowledge of a gene should not be patentable in itself, nor should an entire transgenic organism - animal or plant - when it is only a tiny modified gene sequence that is "novel". Moreover, there seems to be a real danger that genetically modified organisms are looked upon only as commodities in a global marketplace.

 

Members of the group :

Dr. Donald Bruce (scientist) Society, Religion and Technology Project, Church of Scotland,
Prof. Jean-François Collange (theologian) French Protestant Federation,
Dr. Andrea Dörries (physician), Evangelical Church in Germany,
Rev. Anton Ilin (theologian and physician), Russian Orthodox Church,
Dr. Antonin Janak (physician), Czechoslovak Hussite Church,
Dr. Mireille Jemelin (biologist) Swiss Federation of Protestant Churches,
Dr. Lena Kumlin (lawyer), Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland,
Prof. Anna Rollier (geneticist) Italian Protestant Federation,
Prof. Egbert Schroten (theologian) Netherlands Council of Churches, Moderator
Dr. Constantin Zorbas (theologian and sociologist), Church of Greece,

Staff of CEC: Mr Keith Jenkins, Associate General Secretary and Director of the Church and Society Commission
Rev. Richard Fischer, Executive Secretary

List of documents produced by the previous Working Group of EECCS :

On patenting biotechnological inventions :

On biomedicine :

 

On cloning :

An ethical view on cloning animals and humans, May 1998

 

List of documents produced by the Working Group of the Church and Society Commission of CEC :

List of documents the group is currently working on :

 

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January 2002