Thursday, October 18, 2007

Professional Ethics?

I am watching this judicial showdown with great interest.

First of all, by one reading, I, too, belong to a professional organization (i.e., The United Methodist Church) that has its own professional licensing procedures (The Board of Ordained Ministry). Although my organization's professional licensing procedures are not in any sense overseen, supervised by, or practiced at the mandate of any federal or state legislation, there is at least one major circumstance in which my authorization as a pastor is linked to my authorization to provide a legal service: that is, marriage.

What if my professional organization's licensing procedures were in conflict with the state's guidelines concerning the practice of performing marriages? This could potentially come up, given that my professional organization currently forbids its members to officiate at weddings that are considered legal in some states. I am not aware of any cases where my professional organization has exercised its authority in this matter (the UMC is not exactly known for its episcopal backbone), but what if it did? Would the state recognize the right of a professional organization to set its own ethics, even to the inconvenience of the state or its citizens?

This problem is much more acute in the case of medical practitioners whose ethics conflict with the state's interest in carrying out its business. And the scalpel cuts both ways, politically speaking: at present, doctors are permitted to refuse to perform or refer for procedures or treatments to which they have a moral objection, even where state law has recognized access to those procedures and treatments as a civil right. Generally speaking, those who would be in support of the Medical Board's attempt to do an end run around the law with regard to the death penalty tend to be highly critical of practitioners' attempts to do an end run around the law with regard to abortion and certain forms of birth control.

I'm very, very curious to see how it will play out.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Christian Bioethics?

This past week, I began a four-week lecture series in a local church's Sunday School class. The parish, a significant portion of which is comprised of doctors and lawyers, had requested a class in Christian bioethics.

Believing they were expecting a four-week class in "which side to come down on" ethics, and hoping to problematize their approach somewhat, I decided to focus on biblical portrayals of health and sickness for the first three weeks of the class. We won't get to "Issues in contemporary medicine" until the last week.

The first class focused on Old Testament depictions of health. I depended heavily on observations by Norman Wirzba and Ellen Davis on the holistic nature of the Hebrew concept of Shalom--a concept that included human health, of course, but also the health of the land, of the people's relationship to its God, of the politics of the people, and of interpersonal relationships among the people. Not just health, but justice, mercy, forgiveness, love, economic responsibility, and environmental stewardship are encompassed in the biblical concept of health and wholeness.

We looked at texts like Isaiah 65 and Leviticus 26 to ground our understanding of God's desire for all of creation to share in God's Shalom. I'm hoping that they begin to see that "health," as we moderns understand it (i.e., the absence of pathology in an individual body), is a paltry substitute for Shalom.