Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review Roland Chia Biomedical Ethics

Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore. In this 2010 book which was jointly published by Genesis Books (imprint of Armour Publishing) and the National Council of Churches of Singapore, Chia develops his theological antropological approach to biomedical ethics. Chia has been instrumental in the writing of many of the National Council of Churches of Singapore's positional papers on biomedical ethics including organ trading and euthanasia. It is good that he now consolidate his thinking together in one book on biomedical ethics for the church.

This book is divided into three parts which is helpful in the way he develops his theological anthropology. The first parts deals with the theological foundations which he then applies in some current issues in bioethics in the second part. The third part is his suggestions for the role of the church in dealing with this complex problems.

This is a well written book and I am able to follow his theological discussion and appreciate his approach to these complex issues as a theologian. He notes,

The theological anthropology that we have been developing in these pages seeks to articulate a understanding of determinism and freedom proper to human beings who are self-transcending yet embodied creatures (p.51)

While it is understandable that this thin volume is an introduction to a complex number of issues, I have hoped that he has given more attention to the each individual issues rather than giving a general overall impression. For example, Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART) was reckoned to be bad because of "medicalisation of procreation", "commodification", and "commercialisation of human beings". This is oversimplifying a complex series of procedures. ART includes In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF). We have to examine IVF in light of his theological anthropology and to take into consideration the stigma of infertility in the Asian culture and whether IVF with the sperms from the husband, eggs from the wife and the fertilised ovum implanted in the wife's womb to be necessarily bad. The only shortcoming is that sexual intercourse is not involved. Yes, we do have to pay the doctors, embryologists and hospitals for the IVF services but could that be counted as commercialisation and commodification? (p.87-88).

In the section on abortion, Chia brings out the issue of whether abortion should be allowed in rape victims. While he makes a strong case that rape rarely result in pregnancy (which is not true), he however does not give the answer to this issue (p.99-100). I have hoped that he will.

The section on chimera research is well written and raises many questions. It is an area where more theological thinking must take place. Chimera research involves combining human and animal genetic material.

It is in the final section of the book that Chia gives us our money's worth. It is his call to the church to act, in being missional, teaching, counselling and being involved in public theology.

Public theology is based on the assumption that the creedal symbols and statements of Christianity have public meaning. Public theology therefore have to do with how the faith that Christian profess is linked with how they live and conduct themselves in society (p.200-204)

Chia argues that the church has a role in public policy. This is especially interesting to me as I have just read Tan Seow Hon's chapter on "Religion and Abortion in Singapore" from Issues of Law and Justice in Singapore: Some Christian Reflections (2009) which is published by Chia's seminary under their CSCA Christianity in South East Asia Series.

While the footnotes are helpful, it will be better if there is a bibliography and index to the book.

This is a significant book as this is the first book on the introduction to almost the whole field of biomedical ethics by an influential theologian in a respected seminary in Singapore. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who needs to understand biomedical issues (that means everyone especially pastors and church leaders). I will include this on the reading list when I teach my module on "Biomedical Ethics Facing the Contemporary Church" in June 2010 at East Asia School of Theology (EAST) in Singapore.



  1. Hi Alex,

    If it is on the general exhortation that the book make our money worth, then it is not really a book on Biomedical ethic (given many inconclusive and undiscussed issues as you have highlighted). It is a book on public theology.

    I have hoped that these works that carry specific title would serve their purpose according to the title.

    Thank you for this review.

  2. Hi Sze Zeng,

    No, it is not a book on public theology and I am sorry if I give you the wrong impression. It is only in the third part of the book did Chia touch on the role of the church.

    Biomedical ethics like many ethical and philosophical questions are often gray, not black and white. Sometimes there are no answers. What is important is that we continue asking the questions.

  3. On abortion, I think a question tat precedes the issue of whether rape victims are allowed to abort is "what is the status of the unborn?"

    If it's just a lump of cells like a tumor or skin cells, then abortion for practically anyone who desires one requires no moral justification whatsoever.

    But if the unborn is a human life, then the question becomes "Is it right to kill a human life because his/her mother suffers tremendously for his/her continuing existence?"

    If I were to discuss this topic as representative of a council of churches, it appears wise to lay down this theological foundation and allow ppl to work thru the implications on the grey issues instead of coming down strong with a definite position.

    personally i think abortion may be legally/morally allowable in some conceivable extreme situations for rape victims but this decision should be made in clear sight of the status of the unborn :)

  4. Hi Hedonese,

    You are right that the discussion on abortion should be based upon the answer to when human life begins. That's the theological consideration.
    The rape victim has already suffered much. On what grounds or rights do we have to force her to carrying to term and look after and love a child that was a product of her violation and a constant reminder of it and her shame? That's the pastoral consideration. It's easy to pontificate if we are not the pregnant rape victim.

    Thank you for pointing out a point that I have missed. Dr Chia's book is published by Council of Churches Singapore.