The Public Debate on the Religiosity of the Public Debate of Bioethics in the USA

Article excerpt

Despite the fact that bioethics is, basically, an interdisciplinary scientific field, it is deeply intertwined with less objectivistic, yet important, threads of morality and religion. From the beginning, in the United States, the language of bioethics has been shaped by theologians and people who do not neglect the religious approaches of particular scientific issues. This paper examines the possibility of using religious and nonreligious terminologies in the bioethical discourse, paying close attention to the American bioethical debate. I shall argue that no democratic, pluralistic societies of today should favor only one jargon of a sole moral tradition, as this attitude leads to the discrimination of others that are also affected by such discourse. Mutual tolerance is the way that can provide a violence-free territory for the discussion about different value-based moral systems and traditions (such as Christianity and Islam or, in a broader perspective, religion and irreligious humanism).

Key Words:

Religiosity, Christian Bioethics, Secular/Religious Terminology, American Bioethical Discourse

There was (and still is) a lurking fear of religion, often seen as a source of a deep and unresolvable moral conflict as well as single-minded political pressure when arouse. For that matter, ours is a society extraordinarily wary of provoking fundamental debates about basic worldviews and ethical premises.1

Introduction

Although the term "bioethics" was coined by an American biochemist called Van Rensselaer Potter, and despite the fact that this recently emerged field of Applied Ethics has had many of its contributors and shapers from the United States of America and Canada alike, nowadays, it has devolved into a world-widely acknowledged realm of public policy issues of vital importance. Bioethics, as "the study of ethical issues arising from the biological and medical sciences",2 deals with moral dilemmas that basically are in contact with medical practice and human life (abortion, euthanasia, reproduction, and transplantation), as well as with the experimentation of human and nonhuman body, the profound investigation of the potentials involved in modern genetic technologies, etc. Yet, bioethics, viewed as a renewal of traditional medical ethics, has also gained sufficient authority, in terms of its usage, as the modern professional ethics of medicine. Nevertheless, its diversely rooted public attention has been maintained mostly by the dia-, or rather multi-logue that has been going on in North America. Initially, the majority of the matters that became essential parts of the so-called universal stands of international organizations such as UNESCO, was considered and brought into the bioethical discourse by American ethicists, theologians, or MDs.

The bioethical discourse came into sight in the 1950s, was ab ovo stimulated by religiously motivated thoughts, and emerged in a Christian context of human values and a distinctively religious understanding concerning the role of medicine. In the very beginning of this half-century ongoing story, in 1954, Joseph Fletcher, the pioneer of bioethics, published the first comprehensive account on ethics with regard to medicine, titled Medicine and Morals. However, he was an Episcopal priest who had challenged the traditional moral absolutism of the organized Christian religion, as he emphasized the relevance of the notion of "quality of life" opposing the absolute "sanctity of life" doctrine. His basic idea was that a "Situation Ethics" is in need what would concentrate on each and every moral dilemma as something entirely differing from any other individual case; not as a something for which the general principles could be mechanically applied. However, Fletcher was not the only Christian thinker who formed the bioethical way of thinking. From the '70s until today there have been many distinguished theologians and Christian ethicists who voiced their opinions on this matter. …