Living in the World - Issues that Christians face

Life and Death

  We used to think we knew when life began and when life ended. Nowadays it’s not so clear-cut. What’s changed: the nature of life and death or our ability to intervene in both?
If it’s the latter, then are we ‘playing God’, or just using the resources he had given us to ‘have dominion over’ the earth, [Gen1.26], to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earthy and subdue it’, [Gen 1.28], as God decreed in the Genesis story of Creation? There, life and the earth are gifts to humankind.  But after the account of the Flood, the arrangement shifts a little [Genesis 8. 20 to 9.1]: God has used Noah to save humankind from destruction; when they emerge onto dry land, God, recognising the sinful nature of humankind, again gives the instruction, (or is it joyous permission?!), to go forth and multiply; and then he promises the stability and continuity of the laws of nature. So we might say that from that point on, rather then pure gift, the continuance of life is more of a harnessing of those laws of nature in a partnership of learning and exploring between humankind and their Creator, even though he acknowledges their capacity for sin.   As a result, today we have the ability to bring new life into the world by ways which were never imagined; and to post-pone death for longer than we have ever been able to. But these abilities bring great ethical dilemmas with them, -dilemmas dealt with by human beings who have the capacity for sin, but also the motivation to care, and to prolong life.
Do you agree with the sentiment of this introduction? Does the story of Noah and the Flood shift our understanding of how we share, with God, exploration and nurture of the world, despite our imperfection?
This week we are thinking about difficult issues relating to life and death.
We start with life: conception and birth.
What do you think are some of the difficult, ethical issues here?
[Leaders: listed below are some of the things that may crop up. Anything else, and you’re on your own!]
Conception: do you have any negative feelings towards any of the following? If so, can you describe what you think is wrong, in terms of Christian faith, Biblical teaching or ethical behaviour? (NB A fertilised egg divides to form an embryo. After 6 weeks, this is referred to as a foetus.)
·      Contraception
·      In vitro fertilisation (egg and sperm joyously united in a test-tube!)
·      Egg and donated sperm, or donated egg and sperm,  united in a test-tube, -i.e. not both  from the two partners
·      Surrogacy, (a woman carrying a child for another woman, after she has been artificially  inseminated with the fertilised egg)
·      Insemination with multiple embryos
·      Disposal of ‘unwanted, extra’ embryos, or their use in medical research
·      Freezing of eggs and embryos
·      Eugenics: genetic  alteration of the embryo to change certain characteristics
·      The previous issue, when used to develop a child who could donate certain tissues to a sibling
Nurture for survival of very premature babies:
  • What are the problems which might follow the birth of a very premature baby? [e.g. physical or learning disability.]
  • Under what sort of conditions would you definitely fight for the survival of such a little child?
Abortion:  the deliberate  termination of a pregnancy
  • Is this ever acceptable?
  • If it is the ending of life, how does it differ from miscarriage?
  • Many women are unaware of very early miscarriages, -how do you think about that? Is there a different response to this sort of loss, than from the loss of a foetus at 12 or 20 weeks? (Full term pregnancy =40 weeks)  Remember, grief and bereavement can differ vastly from case to case
  • Screening for certain abnormalities in pregnancy brings the dilemma of possible termination if the result indicates a problem with the foetus.  What sort of questions should we ask to help us in decision-making in such a scenario?
The nature of human life:
·      What makes a person a person? If it’s to do with the soul, read Genesis 2.7. The Authorised Version of the Bible says: ‘and the man became a living soul’. Notice God didn’t breathe a soul into him, -the [whole] man became a living soul.  If it’s more to do with humanity and personhood, then how do you describe that?
·      When does  human life begin: at fertilisation; implantation; at 6 weeks; or the 24 weeks when the foetus is considered capable of life if born prematurely?
·      Psalm 139 contains those beautiful words about the psalmist being knit together in his mother’s womb. That is an adult human being, a person, realising that from his very beginning God knew him. But if that psalmist had never been born, he could not have had those thoughts about God. It is the heart-felt gratitude of a person who was born and grew up, meditating on the fact that God knew him even before his personhood was completed. I think we misuse this text if we claim it as an anti-abortion slogan. What do you think?
·      Using the same sorts of thinking as above, when does human life cease?
Let’s look now at some the issues around the end of life:
  • How many times have you heard someone say: “I died three times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital”!? They didn’t die at all, because there they are, telling you about it. What they mean is that they were resuscitated three times, -or however many.  Like the foetus in the womb that might have lived, they might have died, but didn’t, and it’s  the final reality that we have to deal with. But one can understand the desire to express it so dramatically, because it is pretty sobering to know that you would be dead but for that intervention. Under what circumstances would you want to be resuscitated?
  • Let’s be brutally honest, there’s only so much money in the pot for medical treatment: would you spend it on keeping an aging population going for longer?
  • What if it were your mother/father?  What if they were scared to go to hospital because their life might not be considered worth saving?
  • Where do you draw the balance between quality and quantity of life? And at what age do we begin to draw it?
  • What does Christian faith have to say about the value of the elderly and their wisdom?
Terminal care for the dying at any age:
  • What do you make of the old aphorism: “Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive exceedingly/officiously to keep alive”
  • Euthanasia: [meaning ‘good death’].  Do you think this is ever justified? What about those who are asked to assist the person to die?  Is this a compassionate cause, or a cause for concern?
Loss of the ‘Person’ through dementia:
  • Describe any experiences you may have of caring for someone with e.g. Alzheimer’s disease. Was there ever a sense of losing the ‘person’ before they actually died?
  • Did you continue to visit etc, until physical death occurred? Why?
  • Does it help you to think of the dementia as masking the person, rather than losing him/her?
What is our Christian hope in all this?:
  • Describe what you think happens when we die
  • What difference does that make to these issues?
  • We sometimes think of the story of Jesus’ in terms of his miraculous birth and awful, but wonderful, death for us. Did he do anything of importance in between these two?! If so, does our ‘middle bit’ count as well?
  • In the light of Jesus saying he had come to bring us life in all its fullness, how do we understand St. Paul saying: To me, living is Christ, and dying is gain. [Phil 1.21]

Christine Bailey, 29/10/2013