Discussion questions: Matters of Life and Death

Professor Wyatt has kindly provided these dicussion questions especially for Science Network to accompany his book 'Matters of Life and Death', which explores Christian ethics surrounding beginning and end of life issues. Why not use them as part of a Science Network book group in your university? We suggest you read a chapter before each meeting, then use the questions to facilitate discussion. If you're short on time, you could pick three or four questions for each chapter. For more on Science Network book clubs, click here.

Chapter 1: What's going on?  Fundamental themes in medicine and society

1. Explain in your own words what reductionism means.  Why has reductionism become such an influential way of thinking in science over the last 30 years? 

2. Why does reductionist thinking question the reliability and truthfulness of human beliefs?  How might you explain this to an atheist friend who is committed to scientific reductionism?

3. What are the effects of a "machine view of humanity" on the way we think of our own bodies?  How might this influence the way that we treat one another?

4. Why does scientific reductionism lead to a belief in 'pure chance, the lottery of life'?  Is it possible to work consistently as a scientist or engineer if you believe that life has no purpose or meaning?

5. Give some examples of how God-like knowledge can give rise to God-like responsibility.

6. Why do you think physical health has become such a high priority for modern people?

7. What does it mean to say that modern societies are ethically pluralist?  How is this reflected in your university?  What are the practical consequences?

8. Give some examples of where different individuals and groups in our society find their "core values".

9. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of the liberal individualistic philosophy of Ronald Dworkin when applied to controversial ethical issues?

10. What does it mean to be a "speciesist"?  Is there any difference between speciesism and racism?  What would be the consequences for society if we treated all sentient species as of equal moral significance to human beings?

Chapter 2: Biblical perspectives on humanness

1. ‘The order behind the creation is conceived by the Creator’s mind and imposed by the Creator's will’.  What are the implications of this for the practice of science?  How might you illustrate this to a friend who is a scientist but has no religious beliefs?

2. ‘We are neither owners of the planet - to do with it as we please, nor mere guests - to observe its development passively. We are stewards.'  What are the implications of this for society as a whole and scientists in particular?

3. ‘We are not self-explanatory…..the dignity of our humanity is derivative; it comes from God whose image we bear.’  What does it mean to say that human beings are not self-explanatory?  What are the implications for scientific research into the nature of humanity?

4. ’Within the story of my life, I have a degree of independence, the dignity of genuine choice, the relative freedom of a creature. But it is not simply my life to do with as I please.’  How would you explain this to a friend who thinks it is obvious that everyone should be totally free to live their life as they wish?

5. ‘Current secular views of autonomy out of touch with reality, with the way we and the rest of the universe are made’.  Do you agree?  What arguments would you use?   

6. ‘In Christian thought, the dignity of a human being resides not in what you can do, but in what you are, by creation. Human beings do not need to earn the right to be treated as Godlike beings. Our dignity is intrinsic, in the way we have been made, in how God remembers us and calls us.’  What are the practical implications of this way of thinking for how we should treat human beings who are disabled, elderly or affected by degenerative diseases?

7. ‘Biblical ethics, the way we are called to treat one another, is derived from biblical anthropology, the way we are made.’  How might you explain this principle to a friend who Is not a Christian?

8. Why does the Christian worldview lead to a belief in the equality of all human beings?

9. ‘We are made out of the same stuff as the rest of the biological world.’  What are the practical implications for biological scientists of this biblical principle?

10. ‘One of the greatest fears expressed by elderly or disabled people is that they will be a burden to others. But in God's creation order we are meant to be a burden to one another!’  Can you give an example of what this might mean in practice for you?  How does this way of thinking challenge the common secular philosophy of liberal individualism?

11. ‘Human beings are jointly instructed, first to procreate, to fill the vast emptiness of the earth; secondly to subdue the earth, to impose order on to its chaotic elements; and thirdly to cultivate, to bring out the potential that God has placed within the creation.’ How do these creation mandates relate to the practice of science and engineering? 

12. ‘To most secular philosophers, morality is imposed on reality by the human mind. Ethical values are a human invention, part of human storytelling. But in biblical thought, the moral order is a part of objective reality. It is an aspect of the way that the world is made.’  What does it mean to say that God has imprinted a hidden moral order in the design of the universe?  How might you explain the difference between morality as a human invention and morality as part of objective reality to a friend who is an atheist?  Give two or three examples of how this affects Christian approaches to a practical ethical dilemma. 

13. In what ways does the Fall described in Genesis represent a rejection by human beings of God's moral order?

14. Is it true to say that modern Christians have lost a biblical theology of suffering?  If so, why has this happened.  How can we rediscover a more biblical view of suffering and what would be the implications for our lives?

15. ‘In Jesus, the Second Adam, we see both a perfect human being (what the original Adam was meant to be) and the pioneer, the blueprint for a new type of human being’.  How might you explain this to a friend who was not a Christian?  What are the implications of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus for our view of human beings?  

16. What is the significance of the consistent witness of the Gospel writers that after the resurrection of Jesus, the tomb was empty?  Why is this important?

17.’We can only make sense of the present in the light of the future’. How might you explain this principle to a friend?   What can we learn from the analogy of the seed and the flower which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 15?

18. 'We can only dare to act in the light of the future’.  How might this be applied to the practice of science and engineering?

Chapter 3: Reproductive technology and the start of life.

1. Explain in your own words why the experience of infertility is frequently associated with personal suffering for couples across the world.  How do you think you would respond if you discovered at a later date that you were unable to have children?

2. In what ways have the existence of IVF and its associated regulations changed the nature and understanding of parenthood? 

3. What do you understand by the “lego-kit” view of humanity and in what ways does the current use of reproductive technology reinforce this perspective?

4. How does the “flawed masterpiece” view of humanity differ from the “lego-kit” perspective?  How might you explain this to a friend who was interested in the implications of Christianity?

5. John Wyatt argues that there are ethical differences between using advanced reproductive technology to “restore the masterpiece” compared with “changing the design”.  Is this a valid distinction and if so how might this distinction be applied to different forms of reproductive technology? 

5. Explain in your own words what the ‘unitive’ and the ‘procreative’ aspects of sex represent, and why in Christian thinking they belong together. 

6. Do you think that IVF would be appropriate for a Christian couple who find that they are infertile?  What are the factors that need to be weighed for and against the use of this technology?

Chapter 4: Fetal screening and the quest for a healthy baby

1. How does the existence of fetal screening alter the relationship between a mother and her unborn child?

2. Why do you think the large majority of parents in our society choose to have an abortion when Down’s syndrome is diagnosed before birth?  What are they afraid of?  How does Christian thinking about what it means to be human change the perspective on this issue, and how might you explain this to a friend who was exploring the possibility of becoming a Christian?   

3. 'To be strictly accurate, prenatal screening and termination do not prevent disability; they eliminate disabled individuals.'  How would you explain the difference between these two concepts in your own words?  How might you illustrate this to a pregnant friend who was considering undergoing fetal screening for Down’s syndrome and other genetic disorders?

4. Why is it important that the voices of disabled people should be heard in this debate?  What Christian principles are at stake?

Chapter 5. Brave new world – biotechnology and stem cells

1. Do you agree that people should have freedom to select embryos for implantation on any basis whatever?  What about selection on the basis of sex, race or future intelligence?  How does this question illuminate the clash between the worldviews of scientific materialism and biblical Christianity?

2. Give illustrations of how the manipulation of language precedes and justifies the introduction of morally questionable scientific innovations.  Do you agree that the use of the term ‘saviour sibling’ may be manipulative?

3. What is ‘genetic determinism’?  Why can it be seen as both scientifically inaccurate and spiritually idolatrous?

4. 'Yes the body does matter and, Yes, my genetic heritage is important in determining my identity, but No, I am not merely programmed.  The human self, known and loved by others and by God himself, is greater than my genes.'  How would you explain this to a friend who was a scientist and drawn towards materialism?

5. How can Christians challenge the reductionist mentality in science and healthcare?  Give some practical examples.  What can we do practically to demonstrate our belief in the value and dignity of every human life?

Chapter 6 – Abortion

1. Summarise the classical Graeco-Roman view of the unborn baby and newborn infant.  Can you discern parallels with modern attitudes towards the fetus?

2. How did the attitude of the early Christian church towards abortion and infanticide differ from that of the surrounding culture?  How would you explain this to a friend who was exploring the Christian faith?

3. What can we learn from the practical activities of the early Christians?  How might this be relevant today?

4. How does the current abortion culture unintentionally encourage male irresponsibility, emotional disengagement and the exploitation and manipulation of women?  Give an illustration of how ‘the focus on personal autonomy masks the powerful distorting societal forces under whose influence women make choices about pregnancy and childbirth’.

5. How would you critique the philosophical support for abortion from Ronald Dworkin and Peter Singer?  What would you agree with and where would you differ?

Chapter 7 - When is a person?

1. ‘The narrative of a human life is invaded by God from its intrauterine origins’.  How would you put this in your own words?  How would you explain this to a friend who believes that an early fetus has no real significance?

2. Do you think that Christians should draw a moral distinction between on one hand the early embryo and fetus, and on the other hand the later fetus?  How would you justify your opinion?  What practical difference does this make?

3. Human beings are 'at one and the same time fully physical and fully immaterial'.  When we think of embryonic humans we should hold together the physical and the immaterial.  How would you explain this principle to a friend?  What are the implications of this way of thinking about the embryo?

4. Do you agree that abortion for fetal abnormality, even when motivated out of concern for the mother, ‘falls short of genuine Christian compassion’?  Give reasons for your answer.

5. How would you answer a friend who argued that abortion after rape was always the best solution?  How might practical support be given to the pregnant mother in this desperately painful situation?

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