Helen Rittelmeyer, one of our bloggers at Postmodern Conservative , has written a compelling essay at Doublethink titled ” Toward a Bioethics of Love .” Rather than building an argument on abstraction, she brings—in true Burkean fashion—her own real-world experience to bear in thinking through the subject. Her sister has, as she describes it, a genetic disorder that is “too unusual to have a name” and a “10-month-old mind trapped in a 20-year-old body.” Following her moral intuitions, Helen proposes to “offer a conservative bioethics, one that sees love, not autonomy, as the basis of human dignity.”

Since the Second World War, respect for autonomy—the capacity to act intentionally, with understanding, and without controlling influences that would mitigate against a free and voluntary act—has been one of the core principles of bioethics. This is right and good as far as it goes, though in our era of unfettered individualism, it often goes too far, pushing out all other principles from consideration. Restoring autonomy to its proper place is therefore a laudable endeavor. Regrettably, I don’t think she accomplishes this task. Indeed the irony is that Helen’s essay argues rather forcefully for the expansion of autonomy, redefining it as a familial and cultural rather than a mere individual consideration.

Where I think her argument begins to take a (somewhat) wrong term is in her wish to see love as the basis for human dignity. Love is indeed the basis for human dignity—just not in the way she presents in her essay.

Dignity is derived from the Latin word for “worth.” The basis for our worth—our dignity as humans—is God’s love for us. This may seem like a nit-picky point of semantics (“Human love, God’s love . . . as long as love is the basis it will lead us to the same point, right?”) but I hope to show why focusing on God’s love as the basis for human dignity—a claim that Helen likely agrees with—leads to a very different outcome.

For instance, Helen believes that a disability is not “merely incidental” to a person’s identity:

For one thing, it is dangerous to write off any trait as a mere happened-to-be. Did Joan of Arc simply happen to be a woman? Would Oscar Wilde have been Oscar Wilde if he’d been straight? If we knock off every characteristic attributable to accidents of genetics and fate, can we hope to leave any mark of individuality standing?

But this point, which holds for most characteristics, goes double for disability. It contradicts decades of sloganeering to say so, but, very often, a man’s disability is the defining aspect of his life.


In itself, this is a rather obvious point: The characteristics of a person—especially something as significant as a disability—can define their personality. As she herself says, “So far, so uncontroversial.” Yet, she goes too far when she adds:
When a man’s disability is fundamental to his character, then there is no difference between wishing for a cure and wishing he were someone else. As Jim Sinclair put it in 1993, “It is not possible to separate autism from the person. Therefore, when parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’”

Although I respect the motive behind this statement, the claim that the disability is so intrinsic to the person’s identity that eliminating it would essentially eliminate them is a dangerous confusion that could lead to disastrous consequences if it were to become a normative principle of bioethics.

It also leads to the peculiar conclusion that Jesus spent much of his time on earth annihilating people (or at least their personalities) since much of his earthly ministry included healing those with disabilities. Should Christ have warned the sick that, though he would gladly cure them of their affliction, doing so would cause them to no longer be the same person but rather someone else entirely ?

(Sinclair’s view also raises another curious question for Christians: Since afflictions such as autism will not exist after the resurrection of the dead, can autistic children “go to heaven” since without their condition they cease to be the same person?)

Jesus had no compunctions about curing disabilities, no matter how “fundamental to a person’s character” they may have been. The reason is that lameness, deafness, blindness, and other maladies are corruptions of God’s good creation. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that such afflictions are anything less than the lamentable result of man’s fallen condition. As Albert Wolters notes in Creation Regained :

Although we may find it difficult to formulate criteria for defining normality, we are forced to use words that designate deviations from what we consider normal, whether they be ordinary terms such as abnormal, sick, or unhealthy, or more scientific terms such as dysfunctional, maladjusted or pathological. The Bible too acknowledges this reality, using such strong terms as corruption, vanity, and bondage. This language points to a central scriptural teaching, namely that wherever anything wrong exists in the world, anything we experience as antinormative, evil, distorted, or sick, there we meet the perversion of God’s good creation.

A corollary to the cliche that Christians should “love the sinner, hate the sin” is that we should love what God loves, and hate what God hates. God hates sickness and disability and loves the afflicted. We must do likewise because we—and our neighbors—belong to God and not to ourselves. Confusion on this point leads to a sinful turn toward individual autonomy. But it can also lead to a sinful turn toward corporate autonomy. This is the move I think Helen makes when she says:
But I am not willing to privilege physical wholeness so quickly. It is not simply a matter of a child being capable of living a full life without his hearing. In this case, the inability to hear is the very thing that makes a full life possible; without it, the child would grow up a stranger in his own family. It is not a zero-sum choice between hearing and his parents’ love, of course, but the CI controversy does demand that the medical profession make a clear decision: Would a sane person sacrifice his child’s hearing for the sake of fuzzy and intangible benefits like the opportunity to share a language and culture with him? Scientific triumphalism would say no. I am not worried that its answer will be given the force of law anytime soon, but I worry for the culture that takes its side.

Culture—at least one shaped by a Christian understanding of theological anthropology— should emphatically (though cautiously) take the side of physical wholeness over these “fuzzy and intangible benefits.” The reason we privilege physical wholeness is because it is closer to God’s ideal for creation. To prefer language or shared culture to the physical restoration of a person is to make idols of artifacts.

As bioethicists John Kilner and Ben Mitchell have proposed, the Christian view of bioethics should be God-centered, reality-bounded, and love-impelled. Although the implications are profound and the application requires robust thinking about the issues, at its core this concept entails that: We must recognize that our bodies are owned by God, and not ourselves; that sickness and disability are fundamental aspects of living in a fallen world that must be faced realistically; and that our duty to love our neighbor is the primary principle that must guide our thinking on bioethical issues.

In essence, our bioethics should follow the model of the Niebuhrian serenity prayer: God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; Courage to change the things we can; And wisdom to know the difference.

Articles by Joe Carter

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