More Work to be Done image

More Work to be Done

Two weeks’ time and there will be a new government in the UK. I’m still not sure how I will vote (‘None of the above’ feels the most attractive option) but regardless of the outcome there are increasing ethical complexities coming down the tracks which pastors should be alert to.

Beginning of life issues
I’ve been writing about the problems with IVF on Think for years but it still doesn’t seem to be an issue that enough pastors have grappled with. A developing complexity is that of polygenic screening. Increasingly, parents – at least those who can afford it – will be able to screen their embryos for a wide range of ‘defects’; and, increasingly, to select for desired traits.

This should be ethically concerning on multiple levels. Firstly, it will make all conceptions IVF ones, as the screening can only happen with lab-generated embryos. Secondly, it will produce many more ‘spare’ embryos which then have to be discarded. Thirdly, it will reinforce and encourage the notion of childrearing as being a consumer choice rather than divine gift.

What does your church teach about the conceiving and raising of children? Would you know how to respond if a church member was considering polygenic screening and came to talk it over with you?

End of life issues
For a very long time it has felt that the legalisation of some form of euthanasia is inevitable. Mercifully parliament has consistently voted against it, but prospects of a Labour super-majority make a change more likely. I’m not going to rehearse the rights and wrongs of ‘assisted dying’ here (suffice it to say, the wrongs far outweigh the rights, as the evidence from Canada, Belgium, etc., makes increasingly clear), but want to urge consideration of a pastoral corollary: if euthanasia is legalised, what happens when we are asked to conduct the funeral?

Any suicide is always a deeply sad and regrettable event. Taking the funeral of a suicide is always pastorally fraught, but how will we respond if members of our congregations opt for medical suicide? The fact that such deaths will be more obviously planned than ‘regular’ suicides means we should be able to do some ahead of the event pastoral planning too. Personally, I think I would have to refuse to take the funeral of someone who had opted for euthanasia, certainly for church members. Or, I would take it only on the understanding that I would declare their decision to have been wrong.

Either way it’s difficult. What would you do?

All of life issues
Genetic screening will increasingly not only be an issue at the conception of life but throughout it. For many people getting a genetic test will seem a no-brainer: it is free on the NHS and seems to promise all kinds of information that could be beneficial to health. The offering of these tests will become increasingly routine and to refuse them will put you in the same moral camp as those who refused covid vaccines.

There are many concerns about this though. An individual might have legitimate concerns about the amount of information, and control, having this kind of data could give actors who don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart. (This is especially the case given the NHS’s notorious propensity to IT failures and data leaks, never mind malicious hacking operations.) It might push up your insurance premiums. But from a pastoral perspective I anticipate one of the biggest issues being an increase in anxiety.

Genetic testing is meant to, at least in part, stem anxiety by providing information. I fear the reality will be rather different. Most people are very poor at interpreting data and statistics. If a genetic test revealed that an individual is ten percent more likely than the average to develop a particular cancer what is the likelihood that that individual will experience far more stress from worrying about this possibility than they are to actually experience it?

My strong hunch is that more widespread genetic testing will create more anxiety, more neuroticism, and hence more pastoral work.

The double-edge of technology
Genetic testing is an example of a technology that can have clear benefits but which we might discover causes more harm than good. Technology is often like that. Technology, specifically digital technology, is the driver of so much disorder and sin.

Digital technology opens the door to worlds that in some cases weren’t even previously imagined, as well as those that were imagined but impossible. We all know the reality that the action of going into a newsagent and purchasing a magazine off the top shelf created a far higher barrier to accessing porn than does the instant access provided online. We also know that this is fuelling ever more extreme and depraved examples of porn, and that in turn affects expectations and behaviours. The dating apps create opportunities, some good, many bad, that wouldn’t have existed without technology. And so on and on.

These technological trends will only accelerate. Are we thinking about these issues, and are we teaching into them? Digital technology offers so many wonderful benefits and blessings yet at the same time many of us are like toddlers who have been handed a chainsaw. If we are going to make disciples then discipling people in how to handle technology in a God-honouring way is going to be essential.

If you are a pastor you may well think that trying to finish off your message for Sunday, let along working out which way to vote, leaves you with no time to consider ethical issues like these. But you should do. The issues are unavoidable.

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