A University Professor’s Response to Sanctity of Life and Disability

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A response to Joni Eareckson Tada’s “Sanctity of Life and Disability”

How true it is that we have been lulled to sleep by Enlightenment thought that rational thought and achievement are the crowning attributes of humanity.  The drive for human perfection is so entrenched in our Western culture that no one dares to question it.  We can find this drive and ambition advocated for in nearly every discipline in higher education and in many institutions in culture.  It certainly can be felt in the medical technologies we embrace.  Take for example, the case study concerning Brian and Becky, which can be found in Module 4 of Beyond Suffering: A Christian View on Disability Ministry, from Joni and Friends

Brian and Becky have an ideal marriage in almost every respect. They have wonderful jobs that provide excellent financial security, are active in their church, and both come from supportive warm families. However, they remain childless.  They have been trying to become pregnant for four years now.  So far, infertility treatments have not been successful and they simply cannot afford them anymore.  Sensing their discouragement, their doctor tells them that there is another option, which could be made available to them.  She suggested that Brian consider using his sperm to fertilize a donor egg.  The doctor would fertilize the egg in a petri dish and implant it in Becky’s uterus.  The doctor explains that the success rate is not as high as she would like it to be; but this method may just give them the desire of their hearts: a child. 

The doctor goes on to explain that the donor could be anonymous.  She has a large pool of eggs to draw from which were donated by highly intelligent and beautiful young women.  If Becky and Brian wanted further assurance, the doctor could perform a procedure called PGD, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, in which she could assess the DNA of the potential child before it was implanted.  This way they could avoid any adverse outcome such as disability.   

Enlightenment thinkers insisted that the tradition—that unified body of wisdom—which consisted of primarily classical Judeo-Christian thought, must be thrown aside.  Knowledge simply could not progress without abandoning it.  The question then became: When the tradition is rejected, where ought we to go to order our lives and our beliefs?  The answer from Enlightenment thinkers was the following: Ourselves, our own conscience, our own experiences.   Since that time, Western society as a whole has slowly, but surely, decided that: 1) God is no longer our teacher, 2) Nature is no longer our guide, 3) The only thing that matters is self-preservation & self-sufficiency. In other words, we as human beings must conquer nature in order to meet the needs of self-preservation & self-sufficiency. 

We live in a technologically driven society, which gives us unprecedented choices—an unprecedented ability to control nature. However, we must understand that many of the choices offered to us are based upon the idea that there is nothing outside of ourselves or our society that can guide or dictate what we ought to do. So, as we are faced with these unprecedented choices in medicine, we need to think carefully about the role of the Christian tradition in our lives, or we will succumb to the temptation to want to control and conquer nature for our own ends. To control and conquer nature in this way is to dominate in a way that goes beyond our limits as creatures.

Seventeenth century scientist and philosopher Pascal said,

It is not good to be too free.  It is not good to have everything necessary.  Tyranny wants to have something in one way when it can only be had in another.  We allow different claims for different sorts of merit; we recognize charm’s claim to love; we recognize force for its claim to fear; and we recognize science’s claim to belief. 

We have to allow these claims; we are wrong to deny them and wrong to seek others. So it is false and tyrannical to say, “I am handsome; therefore, I must be feared.  I am strong; therefore, I must be loved.  I am…. And it is equally false and tyrannical to say: he is not strong; therefore, I will not admire him.  He is not skillful; therefore, I will not fear him.

Tyranny consists in the universal desire to dominate beyond one’s own station.

If we were to apply Pascal’s view of tyranny to the case study above, it may look something like this:

  • I am an American; therefore, my freedom of choice is all that matters.
  • I am an adult; therefore, my consent is all that matters.
  • My potential baby could carry a defective gene; therefore I will use PGD to assess the risk.
  • My baby may become disabled in the future; therefore, I will not burden society or myself with him or her if an anomaly is found.

Our freedom becomes tyrannical when it is removed from the Christian tradition, for it is the tradition which gave us our freedom in the first place.  We have no notion of freedom apart from this tradition.  We can’t pick and choose at will because it is not our place to do so.  For when we do, we become tyrants, picking and choosing who may live and who must die!  

There is nothing wrong with the desire to have a child, and while using a donor egg raises other ethical issues that are important, the point of this case is that the doctor is encouraging Brian and Becky to have a certain kind of child—one that is “perfect.”  The problem is the message it sends about persons affected by disability.  They are better not to exist at all.  Nothing subverts a pro-life ethic more than such a pursuit.

Links and Resources:

Kathy McReynolds teaches a course on the Theology of Disability and Suffering at Biola. (http://www.biola.edu/news/articles/2007/071017_theoofdisability.cfm)

Watch Joni speak at Biola Chapel and introduce the Theology of Disability and Suffering course. (http://www.biola.edu/news/centennial-chapels/joni-eareckson-tada.cfm) 

To find out more about disability ministry or to get involved, visit the Joni and Friends website. (http://www.joniandfriends.org)

The Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends aggressively promotes life, human dignity and the value of all individuals – despite their disabling condition–from a biblical perspective through the Beyond Suffering course. (http://www.joniandfriends.org/BYS/)


Dr. Kathy McReynolds received her Ph.D in Religion & Ethics from USC, her M.A. from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and her B.A. from Biola University. She currently serves as an adjunct Professor in the Biblical Studies Department and Apologetics Department at Biola University. Dr. McReynolds has written several articles and commentaries for Baker and Broadman/Holman Publishers. She is also the author of several books including The Pilgrim Psalms, Women as Christ’s Disciples, and Enhancing Our Way to Happiness? and serves as the Director of Public Policy, in the Christian Institute on Disability for Joni and Friends International Disability Center. She is married to Mike, her husband of 23 years, and they have three children: Jessica, 18; Moriah, 16; and Jeremiah, 14.