What Does It Mean To Focus on Life?

Author Matthew Vest teaches bioethics at the Ohio State University

In the 21st century, our technologies and powers over human life are immense and, at times, seemingly without end. Yet what does it mean to be focused on “life”? What or whose life are we talking about? Two recent headlines from BioEdge.org strike me as examples relevant to this question:

Just recently, the UK government gave permission to Newcastle University to create three-parent embryos with the goal of combating mitochondrial diseases. This new fertility technique allows doctors to substitute the defective mitochondrial DNA from the carrying mother’s egg with healthy DNA from an egg donor—hence giving the baby a better chance to avoid suffering from diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Medically speaking, this therapy seems promising as it may take away real suffering for newborns, and the inaugural recipients of this genetic therapy may be celebrating their first birthdays around this coming Christmas, 2017. Legally and ethically speaking, however, things are murky as these babies will effectively have the DNA of three parents.

A second example from the Maori iwi (tribe) in New Zealand raises questions of personhood. After a long-standing dispute of some 140 years, the Whanganui River has been granted rights as a legal person. Apparently, the Whanganui will have two guardians to speak on its behalf: one from Maori iwi tribe and one from the government. The current consensus is that this new “riverine person” will not be culpable of murder if someone drowns in its waters, but the Whanganui will pay taxes.

Certainly, there is much that we could reflect on with these two examples, but what is common in both is the question of how to measure and engage with “life.” Both examples moreover are ethical puzzles primarily because they both reveal a missing standard, touchstone, or measure for determining what is meaningful in our current culture. With the first example, the intentions behind the three-parent genetic therapy are commendable, and time will tell if there are consequences genetically or legally. Even if this technology is deemed safe and “inconsequential,” this genetic therapy brings to mind other genetic possibilities, including designer babies and more. What standard can we identify for determining how much control over life is too much? With the second example, a century and a half worth of incredulous legal battles have been waged over the nature of “life” present in the river. Clearly, ecologically speaking, all rivers should be valued and protected, but what does it say our standards for “life” when a river is deemed a “person”?

The mission of Expect Hope does not share the moral ambiguity so prevalent in today’s culture. Expect Hope compassionately, yet firmly, identifies abortion as the ending of lives in New York City, the abortion capital of the US. As an explicitly Christian mission, Expect Hope stands rooted in the Christian moral tradition that has always revered the lives of the unborn. Some of the earliest Christian writings such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas explicitly decry the tragic sin of abortion as part of the Way of Death or Darkness. In contrast is the Way of Life and Light that Expect Hope carries on in this age, following the ancient Christian teaching that “thou shalt love they neighbor more than thy own life”—inevitably, both expectant mothers and their unborn are the Christian’s neighbors. Hence the Christian tradition has always maintained, abortion should be rejected as contrary to other-centered neighborly love.

Whenever an ethical question is raised, it is inevitable that some standard is invoked to determine what is a meaningful life. This standard then influences our decisions on “what” and “how” should we use our time? Which issues matter most? Who are the suffering people in need of our attention? Who is our closest neighbor in need of help? These are questions that Expect Hope answers daily within the northern most borough of New York City through compassionate, neighborly love.

At this time of year, traditional Christians are celebrating Lent, and amidst the Lenten season on March 25 falls a beautiful celebration of life—the Annunciation to the Theotokos (Luke 1:26-38). On this glorious feast day, traditional Christians celebrate the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin that she would give birth to the Son of God. As such, the unwed Bride whose womb yielded the Fruit and Savior of the World became the Theotokos—the Mother of God. What a blessed motherhood! Moreover, when the Theotokos set out to visit her also-expecting cousin, Elizabeth, the child within Elizabeth’s womb leapt! Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth exclaimed “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Together, these two young women rejoice in the God who opened the way of Salvation to Abraham and his descendants through the Life born within Mary’s womb.

In a time of confusion, an age that struggles to know what sort of life is meaningful—and how we come to know this meaningful life—the Annunciation remains a beautiful and fitting reminder of what it means to focus on life.

The Visitation Icon

Today is the beginning of our salvation,

The revelation of the eternal mystery!

The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin

As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.

Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:

Rejoice, O Full of Grace,

The Lord is with You!

Annunciation Troparion

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