Gilbert Meilander has spent his life at the intersection of theology and bioethics, including being selected for George W. Bush's bioethics commission that ran for most of his two terms as President. In his new book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life, we get the "greatest hits" of Meilander's work and insight. Join Scott as he discusses Meilander's time on the Presidential bioethics commission as well as wisdom from his new book.








About our Guest

Gilbert Meilander is Research Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. He is a fellow at the Hastings Center and former member of President George W. Bush’s National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He is the author of numerous books and articles in Christian ethics and bioethics, including Bioethics: A Primer for Christians.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics. We're here today with a very distinguished guest, Dr. Gilbert Meilaender, who is Senior Research Professor of Theology of Valparaiso University and held a long-time endowed share in Christian ethics at Valparaiso. He also served on President George W. Bush's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. He's the author of more books and articles than we have time to list here, but his most recent book, entitled Bioethics and the Character of Human Life.

I described it, and I think Gil agreed with me that it is a collection of Dr. Meilaender's greatest hits throughout his academic career. And he has done in my view, what professors of theology ought to be doing, which is putting their theology to work in the service of ethical issues. And particularly in service of things that have to do with public policy and the pursuit of the common good in the broader culture.

So Gil, thank you so much for being with us. And I really appreciate your new book and look forward to getting into some of the topics that are discussed.

Gilbert Meilander: Thank you. Good to be here.

Scott Rae: You know, the first part of your book has to do with your time on President George W. Bush's Bioethics Commission in the early to mid part of the 2000s. Tell us, I think our listeners, I think, will be very interested in that experience. So I'm curious to know, what did you learn from that experience and what were some of the best contributions in your view of the commission to the bioethics community?

Gilbert Meilander: Well, I learned it's very hard to make people happy. The President's council was formed because of the issue of embryonic stem cell research. That was really the galvanizing issue that led President Bush to form the council. Although the council's charge was very broad, and we did not have to stick only that question. And we didn't in fact, before we were done.

But we began with the stem cell question, and the council was deeply divided on that question. A lot of people, and in fact, if you were to go back and read the news articles about the formation of the council, you would see that the general view was that this was going to be a right wing cabal established by George W. Bush.

Didn't turn out to be that at all, and in fact, it wasn't intended to be that. It was deeply divided on a question like embryonic stem cell research, but in terms of our contributions, I think that the very first report that we issued, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, which dealt with the stem cell issue, was one of our major contributions because there are several chapters in there that really try to sort through the arguments, both pro and con, and I think do it in a pretty fair and respectable way.

That was an important contribution. And a few other reports that we did over time. One of them was called Beyond Therapy. That's about enhancement that has gotten a lot of use actually in academic settings. We did a short little report called Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Human Stem Cells, which simply talked about other possible ways to try to get stem cells that would do pretty much everything that embryonic stem cells can do.

I think that was a real contribution because it suggested that simply saying no to research that destroyed embryos was not necessarily saying research progress couldn't be made. So a number of our reports I think were important. I think in some ways though, maybe an even more important contribution of the commission was the way we worked. This commission was not just made up of people who were bioethicists. In fact, Leon Kass, who was the first Chair of the council, liked to say it was a council on bioethics, not a council of bioethicists.

We heard from people in the bioethics world. We heard from scientific researchers on various topics that we took up, but then the council, which was made up of people with a wide range of different types of expertise, council did its own ethical reflection. We didn't think of ourselves as just trying to set public policy, but of trying to think through some of the deeper issues that citizens in general should be concerned about. And I think that that way of working, though pretty rare actually among national bioethics bodies, offered a different way to think about these matters and was, and was a genuine contribution to the council.

Scott Rae: You know, I concur on that. In fact, one of the things that I found most helpful in your work of the entire commission, not only the reports. And actually I used Beyond Therapy as a text in one of my classes for several years during that time period, but just getting the chance to look at the deliberations of the commission, I thought, was so helpful. Because you could see the interaction, the interchange that went on, and you could see how the commission actually came to some of their consensus views, but also some of the really serious disagreements that were just a part of the discussion. And I had my students regularly access some of the transcripts of some of the discussion sections, which were very, very revealing.

Gilbert Meilander: I don't want to take a long time to tell the story, but we had a really interesting experience. There was a college class, it was a science class dealing with some of the issues in genetics and so forth in which the professor had her students, each student was assigned a particular member of the council, and they had to be that person as best they could-

Scott Rae: How interesting.

Gilbert Meilander: ... in class discussions. And then at some point, so got funding somehow, brought the whole class to one of our meetings and each of us got to talk to our person and so forth. It was a lot of fun. And I think that probably was a useful experience for students to actually try to think their way into somebody else's way of thinking, not an easy thing to do.

Scott Rae: Well, it's probably a good thing that you got a chance for each of you to meet your evil twin at the same time.

Gilbert Meilander: That's right.

Scott Rae: Now, one other question on the commission, if you could do that experience over again, what would you have done differently?

Gilbert Meilander: Well, I'm not sure how best to answer that. I think that I would've looked for a way, I'm not sure what the way was, to try to encourage all the members to understand as best they could, the way the other people thought. There is, I mean, we had some first rate scientists, both medical researchers and medical clinicians. They tend to be a little impatient with those of us who don't think in their categories, but think in a rather different set of categories, philosophical, theological, ethical, and so forth.

I always had the feeling that we worked harder to try to figure out what they were saying than they were to figuring out what we were saying. And I would look for a way to try to do that better. It's not easy, and I'm not sure that a better way could be found, but I think it's the crucial problem for a body constituted in the way ours was. It's very hard to work out.

Scott Rae: Gil, I know that from following your work, so much of what you hold and the positions you take emerges out of your rich theological background. How did you bring your religious beliefs, your theological background into the commission's deliberations while at the same time recognizing that you're in a pluralistic group where there's a wide variety of religious, nonreligious convictions that are playing out?

Gilbert Meilander: That was obviously a big problem or problem, a large issue anyway, that a group like the council had to confront. And people had quite different views on it. Even some of the other members who were quite religious held different views. Some tend to think that in discussion like that they should bracket entirely their religious views, others don't. I don't, myself.

My view starts with the belief that everybody, religious or nonreligious, who's participating in that kind of discussion turns out to have certain kinds of beliefs that are at least quasi-religious. They're metaphysical in character.

You can't think about questions like the place of suffering in human life. Whether there are things we shouldn't do, even in order to try to achieve good results. You can't think about questions like that without finally beginning to think in terms that religious thinkers will recognize as being the sorts of issues that they work with and care about.

My own view is that citizens owe each other an honest account of why they think what they do. You can't really come to understand what your fellow citizens think if they don't articulate fully what is at work in their views. And so it seems to me, we ought to want each other to articulate as fully as we can, whatever the underlying beliefs are.

That's what I try to do. Now, you don't do it every minute. I mean, you don't drop your religious beliefs on people constantly, but you don't hesitate to articulate them when it's necessary. One of the things that this council did that was pretty unusual and strange in some ways, but that made this possible, for every report that we issued, we always allowed individual council members to write their own post script, their own personal view at the end.

And one, we had as many as 14 different council members, I think, write their own short take on it. But that's a place when you're not speaking for the council as a whole. You're simply speaking for yourself where you can articulate more fully what you take the underlying issues to be, and the underlying reasons that move you to your view.

And there was time or two when I specifically did that, in fact. So when it can become a sort of reductio ad absurdum when every individual member offers his or her own take on the supposed joint report. And yet there's a difference between the report and what any individual wants to say. And it was a useful way to allow one's views about deeper metaphysical or just call them humanistic issues to emerge. And I thought it was good that we did it.

Scott Rae: It does seem, disingenuous may be a little strong a term, but maybe it just seems incomplete to ask people to bracket out those metaphysical or religious foundations for just how they view the world and to pretend that that doesn't impact the views that they take on really important issues.

Really, they have direct bearing on some of those things. I think that's asking a lot for people just to continually bracket those out and to do bioethics or to do whatever you're deliberating on, just with those sort of on the sidelines.

And I remember actually sitting around the lunch table with you and some other colleagues at one of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity's meetings, and you were reflecting on your experience with the commission and saying that in the aftermath of that you were, you were even more committed to being clear and unequivocal about how your Christian faith impacts the positions you take and letting the chips fall where they would in terms of whether it was well received or not. And I found that a really interesting take on your experience there.

Gilbert Meilander: Well, you're right that that's the view I, to some degree, had and certainly came to. And I think that, as I said, everybody has views that are at least quasi-religious, and the trick is to be honest about it.

Scott Rae: Let's look at some of the issues in your book. Your book tackles a whole litany of different bioethical issues from human enhancement to eugenics and genetic technologies to gene editing to euthanasia. In fact, I think the best contribution of the commission during the time you were on it is the Beyond Therapy work. And I would commend that to our listeners. Is that work, all the commission's work still available at the Georgetown EDU link?

Gilbert Meilander: Yes, it is. I believe it's all available. Certainly most of it is, and some of those pieces, Beyond Therapy is one, you can still order it. You could get an in print copy of it.

Scott Rae: Okay. So Beyond Therapy deals with the area of human enhancement, where we're using medical technologies, not so much to treat disease, but to enhance otherwise normal human traits. How might we reflect a bit theologically on the subject of human enhancement?

Gilbert Meilander: Well, Beyond Therapy, though not a theological document, obviously since it's a report of the council, nevertheless is an interestingly philosophical document. I always like to point out that this report of the council is a rather long, highly philosophical document that doesn't make a single policy recommendation. It simply invites people to try to think about what it means to be human, not to think only about what we should do, but about what we should hope for and desire.

And so the document takes up various areas of life in which we might be inclined or tempted to enhance human beings, relation of parents to children and trying to produce children of the sort that we want, strength and not sure what the word, I can't remember what the word was, but we used any longer, but making human beings more powerful. The happy souls, we talked about it, trying to the mind and memory sport, and I'm blanking on what the fourth one was at the moment.

But anyway, what we were interested in was not so much simply analyzing various ways of enhancing, but thinking about why someone would want to do this. What it tells us about ourselves as human beings? What the dangers are? That is say, we talked primarily about ends or goals, not about means. That's what the report does.

And I think when you try to take it up in that way, it is necessarily a theological topic, but we don't have to call it theological if you don't want. But you're thinking about what it means to be human, what it would mean to try to perfect our humanity, whether perfecting it is something that's actually desirable. That's what the report is about.

And I think for what it tried to do, it accomplished it pretty well. I know that it's been used in academic settings a good bit. I don't know what else to say. It was useful in providing a different way of thinking. Usually discussions of enhancement just talk about different techniques for enhancement. And if there are worries about them, it's simply that we might try to do it before we really know as much as we should, or there might be harms that we don't anticipate. The kind of worries that we explore are more about human desire and what human beings want to be. It's a different sort of concern.

Scott Rae: Yeah. I can see it. Since those are the questions that are being raised, it's hard not to think theologically about what some of those ends might be. So give us just one example of a theological tenet or principle that you brought to bear on some of the ends of human enhancement.

Gilbert Meilander: Interestingly, there are two ways of thinking about enhancement that in certain sense come at it from quite different angles. One is to try to think about whether enhancing human capacities in certain ways undercuts our created agency. Whether human beings are not meant to simply work on themselves, but are to be at work in the world. And so in the certain sense, the notion is it diminishes what creatures are meant to be if we simply think of ourselves as objects to be worked on.

That was one angle. On the other hand, you can think of it not so much as diminishing, but as making too much of human capacities, a prideful attempt to reshape ourselves. Not diminishing, but pushing ever forward in what one member of the council, Michael Sandel called hyperagency, as opposed to diminish agency. But both of these are ways of losing some sense of what it means to be limited human beings, and along the way we may lose sometimes some sense of the givenness and the giftedness of human life.

Now you can use giftedness language in a purely ordinary way, not meaning anything specifically religious or theological by it. Although the more you talk about our given human life is gifted, the more some people will hear religious undertones to that. And I think they're finding that wrong to hear it.

So on the one hand, we sort of diminish what we are as human beings if we simply think of ourselves as material to be worked on. And on the other hand, we make of ourselves too much. We take charge of human life in a way that loses some sense of what a human being ought to be. And in the end may take more responsibility than human beings ought to it. It becomes kind of a quest for a sort of godlike power or responsibility.

And again, as soon as you use a word like godlike, you're obviously using religious language, but you can make the point without up that language. And yet I think more deeply, there are religious understandings at work there.

Scott Rae: Gil, you've got, I mean, there's several really provocative parts of the book that I think will get the reader's attention quite nicely. One of those is where you make the suggestion that even though there are no moral defects in our perfected humanity, post resurrection, there may still be physical ones. And even suggesting that something like Down syndrome for a person may not actually be "cured" in the general resurrection. Tell us a little bit more about that. That I think would strike most people as a bit of an odd view. I'm curious as to what are some of the reasons... If I've understood your view correctly, what are some of the reasons that you hold that?

Gilbert Meilander: Well, you have understood it correctly. When you started asking the question, I was sitting here smiling because although I haven't been thinking of this question, this issue constantly over the years. The first time I thought of this question was many, many years ago in an argument with my mother.

Scott Rae: Oh.

Gilbert Meilander: Who also thought such a view was rather odd, in fact. And I don't know how hard to push it. It's a sort of question about which one should not be, I suppose, overly confident and certain that one is right. But if you'd had a child with Down syndrome who lived for 35 years, say, and that was the person with whom you interacted. It's not clear to me in what sense that person, in order to be perfected or glorified to use the language Christians sometimes use about heaven, not clear to me, in what sense that person should no longer be Downs, but that rather the Downs itself will be glorified in some way.

So if you had a child born with Downs and you could magically cure them at one day old, I'd say, sure cure them. But this is the person whose history you've interacted with for a long time. It seems to me that that's the person one should know in the resurrection.

Now, I don't know Christians, there's a long, long history of Christians speculating about what the resurrected body will be like. Many of the early church fathers had views about it. A lot of them thought that all of us would be roughly 30 years old or so because that's the age at which Jesus died. So it's the perfected age.

Origen, who was a brilliant though unusual thinker, suggested that resurrected bodies would be spherical because the sphere is the sort of perfect, circle is the perfect shape.

So you'd be a fool to be too confident about exactly what resurrected bodies are going to be like. But it's a way, the position that I suggest there is way of saying that even a really enhanced life, whatever exactly the resurrected life is like, even a really enhanced life isn't necessarily what we might tend to think of it.

And that a person who had certain kinds of defects might continue to have those of what that we'd want to call them defects any longer in the resurrection. I don't know. I mean, Christians have always pointed the fact that the reason Christ has the marks or the nails in his hands. If he can have those, then I don't know why some other things that in this life we consider defects couldn't survive also.

I may be wrong. As I say, this is not the sort of question about which one should be too confident.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I think, yeah, very provocative. One of the things that occurred to me in this is a suggestion that if say someone is cured of Down syndrome in the resurrection that he or she might essentially be a different person.

Gilbert Meilander: Well-

Scott Rae: And if that's true, then it raises the question of what grounds personal identity through time and change?

Gilbert Meilander: Which is probably a bigger question than I'm capable of answering, right? I mean, that is a difficult question. But the first thing I think of when you say that is whether if you could somehow magically suggest to a Downs person that they'd be what I guess we could call cured in the resurrection. What they might say is, "Will you still know me?" They'd say, "Well, it's still be me whom you know."

Now there is, I do think that there is in a human being, some kind of inwardness that persists, even through all the various bodily and historical changes that we undergo. And yet you can't access that inwardness in any way apart from the body either. So I'm just very reluctant to think that the body is insignificant for that, the persistence of that person's identity over time. Though, I grant you, it's a deeper philosophical question than I'm able to answer.

Scott Rae: Let me just pursue one other really provocative area, I think, that came out. In the discussion of euthanasia, in assisted suicide, you argue that in the broader culture, the main grounds for supporting euthanasia are actually in conflict. The notion of personal freedom. It's my body. It's my choice. And the notion of compassion for suffering. Tell us a little bit more. How are those in conflict?

Gilbert Meilander: I first learned that idea from Dan Callahan, who died fairly recently. It's got to be within the last couple years, and who was, of course, one of the really leading figures in the beginning of bioethics in this country.

But Callahan had an interesting book. I'm trying to remember the title right now. I think it's called The Troubled Dream of Life or something like that, where he first argued that. And the idea is, and he persuaded me of it anyway, is that if we have these two sorts of reasons, and actually these are the two reasons that are generally given in arguments for assisted suicide, and that make their way even into legislation on it, that on the one hand, a person needs to be self-determining and autonomous and therefore able to have control of his or her life.

And on the other hand that we need to have compassion for the suffering, and the people who are really suffering terribly should be able to ask for help in ending their life. The problem with it is as Callahan first pointed out, and I think he's right about it is that these two kinds of reasons, each of which we can understand, and each of which is sensible in a certain way, but they're on a kind of collision course.

On the one hand, if the fact that I'm self-determining, that it's my life and I should be able to choose how to live it and to end it if I want to end it. If I'm self-determining in that strong sense, then it's not clear why I need to be suffering greatly in order to want help ending my life even though the assisted suicide legislation that generally is passed requires that a person be terminally ill and suffering. It's not clear. Maybe I just decide the game is no longer worth the candle any longer, and it's my life to do with as I please. So why do I have to be suffering particularly?

And on the other hand, if I'm really suffering greatly, do I need to be able to ask for help in ending my life? Quite often, the legislation generally is set up in such a way that what's permitted is assistance to someone who has requested it. But if you're not able to request it any longer, if I'm say so deeply demented that I can't request it, then I'm just out of luck as far as assisted suicide goes because I can't any longer ask for it in a self-determining way.

But if we ought to have compassion for my suffering and for the deep dementia into which I've descended or unconquerable pain that I'm experiencing for other medical reasons, why exactly do I have to be able to be self-determining to ask for it? Why couldn't you just do it for me?

It seems as if either of those reasons ought to be able to stand on their own, and yet arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia generally require both things to be present, both self determinate, the capacity for self-determination and profound suffering.

It's just not clear why they both need to be there, but of course, if we once grant that they both don't need to be there. And that either taken by itself is a sufficient reason, then we have really opened the gate a lot wider for the kind of assisted suicide and euthanasia that we would permit. And I think actually in their heart of hearts, that's where a lot of people are today. I don't know. Did that make sense now?

Scott Rae: It does. And I think that's helpful to recognize that we require both of those, I think, to put the breaks on abuses of one or the other of those reasons, yet looking at it together, there really doesn't seem to be any reason why you would need both of those if, and I think you're right, that one or the other could easily stand on their own, but it does open the door to things that I think make a lot of thoughtful people pretty nervous. And I think justifiably so.

One final question for you, Gil. As you reflect on where the issues in bioethics are headed in the future, what's one issue, one thing about the bioethics arena that you are most hopeful about? Please give us one thing.

Gilbert Meilander: Let me give you two things.

Scott Rae: Okay.

Gilbert Meilander: Okay? How hopeful either these ought to make us, I don't know, but one is that I think there are a lot of younger scholars coming along who will not necessarily think themselves beholden to what standard bioethics has come to think about different issues.

Now that may be good or may be bad. Can't tell for sure what directions they'll want to go. But I think there may be a willingness to rethink questions, not to think that, for these people anyway, not to think that they must simply follow the standard route that bioethics has taken.

I hope that proves to be true. And I think there are people like that. How many there will be, I don't know, but I have some hope for that in the future.

And the other thing I guess I'd say is that with respect to some of these issues, some of the issues connected with genetics and procreation in particular and so forth, I always think that eventually maybe nature will reassert itself. That we cannot simply act in ways that aren't faithful to our created nature indefinitely without that created nature reasserting itself.

Now, that always raises the question, how long is the long run? How long will it take for that to happen? And I have no answer to that, but I still always have a certain hope that that is the case and that we should have a certain confidence in our creative nature to reassert itself. I hope so. Again, no guarantees about that, but if we combine these two and get a few younger scholars who are interested in trying to sort out how that could happen, maybe some good things could take place.

Scott Rae: I think that's a fair assessment, I think, to be guardedly hopeful about that going forward. Gil, thank you so much for being with us. You are just one of the most insightful theologians I know. And the application to bio things that you've spent a career doing, particularly in your work with the President's commission, I think con continues to bear fruit.

I want to commend to our listeners, your most recent book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life. I think it's fair to say that that's a greatest hits of your work throughout a very distinguished in theology and bioethics.

So Gil, thanks so much for being with us. This has been just a delight to visit with you and I again, commend your book, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life to our listeners. It's a terrific read and lots of very provocative and insightful stuff.

Gilbert Meilander: Well, thank you. I've enjoyed it.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Masters in Christian Apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more.

If you enjoy today's conversation with our special guest, Dr. Gil Meilaender, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.