Well, we had a national election last week, if you hadn’t noticed the sudden loss of political hatchet ads encumbering all forms of media, and I will gladly offer the first (perhaps only) post-election bioethics blog. First, there are great risks in making post-mortem assessments on a still-warm corpse that has yet to have a rational pathologist examine it, and the 2012 Election has yet to enter full rigor mortis. It is far too easy to make overgeneralizations that are either too rosy or too gloomy at this point. Electoral politics in a democracy, as George Will put it, will inherently create some disappointment among the citizenry.
Was this a “status quo” election? Does the level of polarization and acrimony that the last two years have displayed look good to a majority of voters? Are issues in bioethics, from the government’s role in embryonic stem cell research to the healthcare delivery system, now essentially settled? I think “yes” answers to any of these are hard to believe. This election seems more to me like a call to bring back the same football team members that lost last season with the admonition to have a “do-over.” I don’t mean this to be entirely pessimistic. Gridlock is bad because it keeps government from solving important problems, but good when it prevents bad laws or bad governance from doing damage. Circumstances change. People learn from the past and change.
So here are a few of my thoughts on the new (or not-so-new) world of American politics. First, whatever we think of Obamacare (and there are proponents and opponents aplenty within the Trinity family), we would be wise to learn how to navigate it. It is omnibus, to be sure, but its particular components are likely still open to interpretation. Instead of repeal efforts (almost certainly futile) or blind acceptance (almost certainly unwise), staking out turf within the law’s confines will be essential. What will become of the rights of conscience that physicians have enjoyed for centuries, and which are already under assault on various fronts? What of the rights of churches, who operate hospitals and medical colleges, to take theological and moral stands that may lie contrary to popular sentiment? Now is the time to engage the provisions of this law; whether we agree or disagree with it, we have an ethical injunction to affirm human dignity and protect the vulnerable, and the vehicle to do it over the next few years is through its implementation. Anyone who believes that our healthcare system has been fully “reformed” is delusional; with or without Obamacare there is much to do within the arena of healthcare delivery.
This brings me to my second point. I am certainly not a proponent of fighting the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s, or of the “Take America Back” mindset. This is increasingly manifesting itself as counterproductive and a lousy strategy for building political alliances among a populace that is becoming more pluralistic by the day. I do, however, think there are moral issues upon which we must be willing to die on the mountaintop, at least politically and perhaps literally. The issues that involve respect for human life, whether it be nascent embryos in freezers and research labs or the dying who stare into the emptiness of dementia in a nursing home wheelchair, are worth fighting for. Regardless of political party, we can stand on principles of honoring the lives of human beings, created in the Image of God, at all stages and irrespective of capacities. If we believe what we say, we will not be quiet when human life is reduced to a commodity. We are to “provide for the common good” and “promote the general welfare,” but always must never forget to “secure the blessings of liberty” for all Americans, including those who do not have a voice.
That said, the way we engage the public square must change. It has been changing. One way we do it is with good science. We should all be encouraged by the Nobel Prize shared by scientists from Japan and the UK that have found ways to use adult stem cells to make tissue that can transform into embryo-like stem cells, a process that is not ethically problematic. Success draws an audience for what we have to say, and the best science need not be separated from solid ethics.
We also must fine-tune our arguments into relatable terms. If exit polls are to be believed, the voters this year showed a disconnect between the purely rational or empirical, where the losing presidential candidate scored higher on almost every category on economics, and the emotional (or at least intuitive) where the presidential candidate that could best empathize with voters was selected. I do not want to glibly say the electorate is irrational, but we do face a nation where post-modern notions of narrative and experientialism seem to triumph over the evidence-based criteria of modernity. Bioethics, in support of human dignity, will need to understand how to do narrative better and to make positions clear in creative ways that can appeal to nominal Christians, Hindus, and agnostics alike. It will not be easy. It is essential.
Third, justice is a principal tenet of bioethics, and one in which we must recognize that we’ve ceded social justice issues for far too long to other voices. Minimizing abortions and working against the current of support for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia will always be vital bioethical issues. But human trafficking, distribution of HIV drugs, worldwide orphan care and healthcare for America’s poor are bioethical issues, and they are issues of increasing importance to young people, including young evangelicals. For example, California, considered the “Greece of America” economically and written off as a lost cause by the right, passed a strong human trafficking initiative last week. The opportunities for collaboration and common ground are great even in this polarized environment. Maybe we can study these issues, make our best case, fight hard for the protection of human dignity, and still recognize that those who disagree with us are flesh and bone human beings like us.
For those who seek to follow Jesus, elections are less about winning or losing and more about what new ways God will let His glory be known through His people in whatever political circumstance they find themselves. Neither a time for gloating or despair, but one for doing our best work.