A Weighty Book for Weighty Questions: The Legacy of On Moral Medicine Continues” by M. Therese Lysaught

Therese Lysaught
M. Therese Lysaught

M. Therese Lysaught is associate professor of theology at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and coeditor of the newly released third edition of On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics

In this post, she explains why On Moral Medicine has remained such an important contribution to the field of medical ethics for more than two decades — and how the new edition updates and expands on the earlier award-winning volumes.

* * *

What is the relationship between Christianity and medical ethics? The media suggests that it is largely antagonistic. Most recently, we’ve witnessed conflict between religious groups and the Obama administration over the contraception mandate and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., Obamacare). Before that, it was Terri Schiavo and medically-assisted nutrition and hydration.  Before that, it was human embryonic stem cell research.  Before that . . . well, the list could go on.

The media prefers a conflict — conflicts sell newspapers and airtime. Christians caring for the sick and disabled, creating new medical specialties like palliative care, or raising important challenges to fields with long, dark histories (like genetics) doesn’t make for gripping copy. What’s more, the perceived conflict between Christianity and medical ethics also fits a particular storyline that is deeply embedded in the American narrative. This is the story of the problem of religious authority relative to both the individual and the secular public square.

Certainly, some of these conflicts are real. Protesters picketed outside Terri Schaivo’s window. Protestors marched outside the Supreme Court in June, as the Justices prepared to rule on the PPACA. But like most sound-bites, these images tell only a sliver of the story. A more adequate, complete, complex, multi-faceted, constructive, and helpful version of the story would take a lot more space . . . something like the 1,180 pages of On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics, Third Edition.

On Moral Medicine, 3rd Ed.
On Moral Medicine, 3rd Ed.

On Moral Medicine first appeared in 1987, the brain-child of Stephen Lammers and Allen Verhey. At that point, the field of medical ethics was still fairly young — only 20 years old. And although medical ethics had been brought into being largely by theologians (Christian and Jewish) by 1987, questions were being raised about whether religion had any appropriate place in medical ethics, the medical center or the public square. Religion — Christianity in particular — was being edged out of bioethics. On Moral Medicine challenged revisionist histories that downplayed the place of theologians in medical ethics and brought together the best voices from the theological community to demonstrate the ongoing insight and importance of Christian perspectives to the difficult questions posed by medical developments.

We hope that our new third edition of On Moral Medicine continues this tradition. Many chapters provide important historical perspectives on their topics. Christian perspectives on “the usual suspects” — the patient-physician relationship, physician-assisted suicide, euthanasia — have been updated.

Moreover, contrary to reports of its demise, the field of theology and medical ethics has burgeoned since 1995 (when the second edition was published) — and the third edition reflects that growth. New technological developments have emerged, requiring new chapters — on cloning, stem cell research, new variations on assisted reproduction, and other hot topics.  Theologians and pastors have begun to explore issues beyond the narrow scope of bioethics — the social responsibility of health care, care for those with mental illness or disabilities, and more. And a new diversity of voices has entered the conversation — voices from beyond the U.S. borders, voices of patients, voices of those with minority status in the U.S., voices of new scholars.

In carrying on the tradition of On Moral Medicine, we hope this third edition will provide an antidote for the unnuanced portrayal of the relationship between Christianity and medicine encountered daily in the media. Although bigger than a coffee table book (in fact, bigger than a breadbox!), On Moral Medicine should be an important companion for those who want a more careful and constructive account of how to bring their faith and reason together in their work in health care, in parishes, or in simply struggling with the challenging questions raised by contemporary medicine. Some of the 156 essays in the book are more suited for the college or seminary classroom. Many, however, are authored by patients and practitioners and will be accessible to the inquiring layperson. The chapter structure makes it easy for readers to dip into the conversation through the door of whatever issue they find most pressing—contraception, aging, the meaning of being a healthcare provider.

On Moral Medicine is a weighty book for weighty questions. But even so, it remains only starting point, a window into the rich, robust, and historic contributions of Christian theologians to the enduring questions surrounding the moral dimensions of faithfully caring for the sick among us.

Click to order the third edition of On Moral Medicine: Theological Perspectives in Medical Ethics, edited by M. Therese Lysaught and Joseph J. Kotva, with Stephen E. Lammers and Allen Verhey.