New books about faith: 3-27/28-10
Creating religious ceremonies: 3-30-10

The future of bioethics: 3-29-10

So, have you thought about the bioethical questions involved in what we human beings will face in a few years when we begin to integrate such external devices as phones, GPS systems and computer technology into our very bodies?


Dr. Glenn Edwards McGee (pictured here) has. Or is. And will some more.

McGee is the new holder of the John B. Francis Chair in Bioethics at the Center for Practical Bioethics, based in Kansas City. I had a chance a few days ago, ahead of the center's annual dinner on April 13, to sit down with him for an hour and pick his brain about the state of bioethics and what bioethical issues (you know, questions around stem cell research, end-of-life issues, those sorts of things) are looming on the horizon.

In some ways, McGee is following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Dan McGee, a theologian, teacher and ethicist who was at Baylor University for a long time, and is doing so despite the son's early desire never to go anywhere near his father's field.

And yet Glenn says that he still considers theologians "the strongest people ever to have written in this (bioethics) field."

In his new role, Glenn McGee intends to focus on the role that state governments play in bioethics, and the bi-state Kansas City area is an excellent place to do that, given that it's in the region where the Nancy Cruzan end-of-life case, played out. It's also in the center of controversy about stem cell and other life sciences research (think Stowers Institute of Medical Research), clinical research on human subjects, pain control of people who are ill and dying and many other matters that engage bioethicists.

"I've probably written more about the role of the states in bioethics than anybody," he told me. "This is an area that takes state stuff very seriously. It's also the home to more clinical research than just about anywhere in the United States."

Part of his work is to be editor of the prestigious American Journal of Bioethics, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes cutting-edge research in bioethics. But he's also called to advance role of the Center for Practical Bioethics as "a full-service, nationally prominent" institution.

McGee certainly has personal views about how life sciences research should proceed, but he insists that he's quite open to discussion and debate with people who disagree with him, and he cites as evidence his friendly and respectful personal and professional relationship with Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. I've heard Doerflinger speak in person and have interviewed him by phone several times over the years. In many ways he's become the American Catholic Church's official spokesman for the pro-life movement. He's a very bright mind and a force to be reckoned with in any discussion about abortion, early (or embryonic) stem cell research, end-of-life issues and more.

"One of the reasons I get along so well with Richard Doerflinger. . .is that he and I are very honest with each other," McGee says.

As for how all of this affects average Americans, McGee says he agrees with what President George W. Bush said in his August 2001 speech on stem cell research, which, McGee says, is that Americans should be talking about this issue over the supper table. And not just stem cell research but the ethical issues woven through questions about "longer life, the idea of retirement, the responsibility we have to our elders. . .what constitutes a full human life" and similar issues that affect many Americans, not just the more hot-button issues (like Dr. Jack Kevorkian-assisted death matters) that affect fewer people.

And people will need to start talking about issues that we'll soon face, he says: "I think the most important issue that faces us is the thoughtful integration of the devices that are now external -- devices and drugs -- devices like iPhones into our bodies and ourselves. (In addition), we're going to find genes for honesty. . .for criminal behavior, and now people just ask the question, 'Would you abort that baby?' In the future people are going to ask questions that are a whole lot more sophisticated, like how many people we need with van Gogh's psychological profile because artists were all miserable." And questions like whether, if some kind of "gay gene" is found, people should abort babies with it to avoid having gay children.

Kansas City is fortunate to be the home of the Center for Practical Bioethics, and all of us need to be much more engaged in finding solutions to the issues the center raises and studies. This can be tough stuff, but we need to talk with each other honestly about all of it.

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An interesting term emerges from a pastor quoted in this story about Palm Sunday in Jerusalem -- a "God-drenched city." Hmmm. Is it possible for one location to be any more God-drenched than any other location?


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