Sep 2009

John Wyatt is Professor of Ethics &  Perinatology at University College London. He has lectured widely on issues in ethics from a Christian perspective and his most prominent book is Matters of life and death: Today's Healthcare Dilemmas in the Light of Christian Faith. In the following interview conducted by Andy Cheung, Professor Wyatt responds to some key questions in bioethics and related matters.

Professor Wyatt, perhaps you can start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I have worked as a specialist in the medical care of newborn infants for more than 20 years.  I am a clinical academic with special interest in the causation and prevention of brain injury.  More recently I have concentrated on research and teaching about ethical issues raised by advances in medical technology at the end of life.  I have been a member of All Souls Church in London since I first came to London as a medical student. 

Your most prominent book is Matters of Life and Death, first published in 1998. I note that a revised edition appears to be out later this year: can you tell us briefly what the major changes are in the new edition?

The book has been extensively revised to take in the many developments in technology, medical practice and policy over the last 10 years.  In addition my thinking has developed particularly in the areas of 'personhood', redemptive aspects of suffering and in the role of eschatology in bioethics.  The book will be published by IVP in November 2009

You approach ethical subjects from a distinctly evangelical perspective and I was wondering whether there were broadly similar views from, say, Muslim, Jewish or secular groups with whom you would like to share a platform.

My background and major theological influences have been evangelical but I have tried to write the book from a broadly orthodox or 'historic biblical' position which many other Christians would be able to accept.  In general I have found a considerable degree of agreement with Muslim and Jewish colleagues and with some secular thinkers who come from a left-wing pro-disability rights perspective. However there are important differences between orthodox Jewish bioethicists and Christians and the distinctively Christian perspectives of the incarnation, redemptive suffering and resurrection of Christ make a significant impact.

I get the impression that American evangelicals are more vocal in their objection to matters such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research compared to the British. Do you think that's true?

It is hard to make generalisations about American evangelicals as they are a very disparate group. However it does seem that in general the bioethical world in the US is very sharply polarised between traditional pro-life and pro-choice constituencies. I think that it is unfortunate that this often leads to harsh rhetoric and very little dialogue or genuine communication between the groups.  In the UK there is less polarisation and a more nuanced debate.  However it is unfortunately true that the majority of church leaders and Christian lay people in the UK do not tend to engage with these issues.

Do you think evangelicals generally are sufficiently concerned about ethical issues? In other words, does the Church presently have an adequate understanding and response to ethical problems in society?

Sadly I think there is a serious lack of concern and practical engagement in these issues. l think this is partly a theological issue and partly a practical problem.  There are many in the church who feel that engagement in ethical issues is of minor importance compared with the primacy of evangelism (narrowly defined in terms of preaching).  I believe an inadequate theology of creation and of eschatology lies behind this.  There are also many church leaders who feel practically unequipped to engage with complex technical and rapidly changing issues such as embryonic stem cells or physician assisted suicide.

What do you think would be the Biblical pattern that we should follow concerning animal rights or environmental issues? Are they on a par with human dilemmas or should they be relegated far below our radar?

Biblical Christians have a God-given responsibility to engage with all the significant challenges which face human kind at the beginning of the 21st century.  So animal rights and environmental issues are undoubtedly significant and important and I would not claim special pleading for bioethics.  However I do believe that the threat to the fundamental nature of our humanity posed by advances in biotechnology and neuroscience are particularly dangerous and wide-reaching in their consequences for society and for Christians in particular.

I was struck by something you said in a recent lecture that, Biblical Ethics (the way we treat each other) comes from Biblical Anthropology (the way we made). Can you explain what you mean by this?

A naturalistic understanding of ethics states that there is no connection between what is the case and what ought to be.  "You can't get ought from is".  But in orthodox Christian understanding (and here I have been particularly influenced by the thought of Oliver O'Donovan) there is a profound connection between the way we have been created and the way we are called to behave.  So for example the biological connection between sexual intercourse and human reproduction teaches us about the moral link there ought to be between making love and making babies. This is linked to the powerful idea of a hidden moral order in creation, like the grain within a piece of wood.

One thing I jotted down from your recent lecture was, "Our understanding of the future changes the way we think about ethical responsibilities in the present." It seems that you try to emphasise both creation and the future hope in our understanding of Christian ethics. Perhaps you can say a few words about that?

It seems to me that modern evangelical Christians tend to have a weak theology of creation and a weak theology of eschatology and both of these are of foundational importance for bioethics.  We need to understand more deeply the nature of our creation in God's image, made from the dust of the earth and made to be mutually dependent on one another.  At the same time we need to understand that in the physical resurrection of Christ as a human being, God has vindicated and fulfilled the original creation order.  The NT teaches that God's plan is for the entire physical creation to be transformed and redeemed through the redemption of our physical bodies.  So when we show genuine love and compassion to needy and dependent human beings now we are pointing towards the future.  We can only make sense of the present in the light of the future and we can only dare to act in the light of the future. 

Finally, besides your own work, what other resources do you recommend for Christians interested in learning more?

Books I particularly recommend are by Gilbert Meileander - A primer in Bioethics and by Oliver O'Donovan Resurrection and Moral Order, and Begotten or Made. The website of the Christian Medical Fellowship has a wealth of material of interest to non-medics.  The Biocentre website has an extensive archive of papers on bioethics which are available for free download  I have recently given 3 public lectures in Australia which summarise my thinking on Bioethics and the Future and they are available to download as MP3 files

Thank you Professor Wyatt for your time.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the King's Evangelical Divinity School. The Talks With Scholars series is a regular feature at KEDS. Visit the interview page for more engaging discussion and conversation with world class academics.