On this Presidents Day, the United States finds itself in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. Both major parties are holding state-by-state elections to identify who will be the candidates for the November election. There are lots of issues being discussed—taxes, national security, immigration, etc.—sometimes at a dizzying and confusing pace. One issue noticeably absent from the discussion: bioethics. Outside the predictable back and forth over abortion, not much mention has been made of bioethical issues. However, in a February 3 CNN Democratic Town Hall, a voter who identified himself as suffering from cancer asked Hillary Clinton an important bioethical question: “. . . I wonder what leadership you could offer within an executive role that might help advance the respectful conversation that is needed around this personal choice that people may make, as we age and deal with health issues or be the caregivers of those people, to help enhance and — their end of life with dignity” (http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/politics/democratic-town-hall-transcript/).
After thanking the questioner, Mrs. Clinton responded, “And I have to tell you, this is the first time I’ve been asked that question . . . [W]e need to have a conversation in our country.” I agree. Wouldn’t it be good to know where the candidates stand on this and other bioethical issues, or at least be able to describe how they would approach it? Unfortunately bioethical topics do not lend themselves to brief, canned responses or to 30-second attack ads. Yet physician assisted death will continue to be part of our bioethical discussion for the foreseeable future. I am glad Mrs. Clinton was asked this question. We can only hope that the other presidential candidates will face similar inquiries.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba and speak with people interested in the topic of bioethics. Los Pinos Nuevos, a Protestant denomination with over 400 churches throughout the country, invited my wife and me to participate in discussions on bioethics over three days with up to twenty people involved in the educational activities of the denomination. I have been a hospital chaplain for the past seven years and have participated in bioethics from that perspective—usually in the role of supporting patients and families during very difficult times. I was very interested to hear a different culture’s perspective on these crucial matters.
This was my first time in Cuba and so I didn’t know what to expect. I tried very hard to avoid the image of the ugly American telling another culture, “Our way is the best way.” The images of Havana and its people are still in my mind—a city and people both vibrant and colorful. What I found was a group of very bright people, educated and professional, and very engaged in the topic of bioethics. Their questions reflected our shared humanity—questions about suffering and pain, issues related to the beginning of life as well as to the end of life.
Because this was only an introductory visit, I gave no formal lectures. However, with a big assist from my wife Elizabeth and her translation ability, I was able to share some important information on the image of God from John Kilner’s, Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God. It stimulated a great deal of discussion and was very well received. For the believer, understanding that someone has the image of God influences the way we provide treatment. It gives us the opportunity not only to treat their body, but also to provide support to their spirit.
We look forward to the opportunity to return to Cuba in the not too distant future. For me, the conversation has just begun.