Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration

by Francis Etheredge

Reviewed by Dr. Pia Matthews, St. Mary’s University Twickenham, England




This book is intriguing. Intriguing because it takes two very different paths of reflection that at first sight appear to be incongruous. Etheredge has invited nine contributors, notable in their own areas of expertise, to give short introductions to the beginning and end word of the book and to each of his chapters. His contributors raise important issues in bioethics, sometimes from their own personal experience, and explore these issues in the light of Church teaching. Etheredge then draws on his considerable theological knowledge to link these issues into the mysteries belonging to Marian doctrine. In each case, this becomes not only an exploration of doctrine but also a profound reflection on the very personal aspect of Mary, Mother of God and our mother. In part this book is an apologetic for Christian and specifically Marian doctrine. However, more significantly the book explores real human experience, notably the experience of suffering, as experience flows out through the reality of the history of salvation. Etheredge situates this book within what he sees as a climate where only the masculine principle counts. In contrast, Etheredge offers a different approach, one which takes account of the feminine principle, where, as in pregnancy, creativity and patient waiting for the action of God is privileged.


Etheredge starts from the argument put forward by Shulamith Firestone, a Marxist feminist writing in the 1970s. Firestone argues that the biological family is the bringer of all things destructive from exploitation of women and children, to entrenching the psychology of power, to the cause of psychological pain. According to Firestone the tyranny of the biological family needs to be broken and replaced by unobstructed pan sexuality. Etheredge notes that many of the so-called advances in bioethics, such as experimentation on embryos and the production of human beings through technology are in a sense a playing out of this breaking up of the biological family. Etheredge persuasively argues that reflection on compassion as ‘being with’, focussing on the compassionate figure of Mary, can draw pain into the reality of being loved. Mary, who accepted the gift of life, has a natural affinity with bioethics, the ethics of human life. Moreover, Mary is the antithesis to a falsification of woman and a pointer to a real lived hope, founded on the help of God.


In the first chapter Etheredge returns the family to its origins in the sacredness of the covenant of marriage found in Judaism and lived out in the marriages of biblical characters, in particular Joseph and Mary. In her introduction to this chapter Mary Anne Urlakis draws on her own family experience and the marriage and lives of her parents to show how bioethical themes are the stuff of life, from difficulties in having children to diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, and how faith sustains in all situations.


In her introduction to chapter two Maria McFadden Maffucci tells about the challenges she faced with bringing up her son James who was diagnosed with autism. The way in which Etheredge highlights the significance of Mary as the one who welcomed Life holds great resonance for those who welcome the gift of children, however unexpected or surprising that gift might be. Reflecting on Mary as the concrete choice of God in her reality as a woman, enables us to move beyond any mere biological notion of procreation. Mary’s own suffering becomes a response to the difficulties of life such as abortion, euthanasia and embryo experimentation. The significance of Mary leads Etheredge into one of his more speculative areas of reflection – whether there should be a new dogmatic statement on the mystery of Mary. Notably, for Etheredge the need for a new feminism may indeed point in this direction.


Laura Elm’s introduction to chapter three speaks frankly of infertility and especially of the waste and destruction of human life through assisted reproductive technologies. Etheredge points out that Mary offers hope even when hope seems impossible and all is lost.


The introduction to chapter four is by Edmund Adamus who reflects on the image of Mary as a ladder to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He relates this to his own experience of God’s mercy, forgiveness and healing in his relationship with his parents and the still birth of his first son. Etheredge speaks about Mary as consolation in the opening up the heart to the depths of human suffering, especially for those who remain unheard by others. He observes that certain moments in life can be like beads on a rosary representing a person’s relationship to prayer. Being open to life is a part of the conversion that is rooted in prayer.


Michal Pruski’s introduction to chapter five reflecting on the conception of new life engages with Etheredge’s exploration of the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s own ensoulment. This in turn leads Etheredge to ask whether there needs to be a more precise definition of human conception in Church documents.


Chapter six begins with an introduction from Moira McQueen on human beings as beings in relationship and what that might mean for bioethics. McQueen notes the view that bioethics is there to fix difficulties, when in fact much cannot be fixed; that having reverence for the gift of the body is increasingly being challenged in the face of gender ideology. Etheredge explores Mary’s relationality as a way of answering some of the questions that are raised by contemporary understandings in anthropology and the complementarity found in male and female, as well as the danger in thinking that human beings need to be freed from this complementarity since it is merely a form of biological conditioning.


Leah Palmer explores the question of infertility, surrogacy and assisted procreation in the light of Church teaching on responsible parenthood. Etheredge considers how scripture can illuminate some of the real sufferings that people undergo that cannot be solved by easy or appealing fixes.


Undoubtedly one message of the book is that a contemporary rejection of the family, relationships, life as a gift not a product, patience in suffering, theological anthropology, and a real spirituality rooted in God has led to a bioethical viewpoint dominated by a psychology of power where suffering, love and even personhood has lost their meaning. In this world of the manufacture of children and lessening of relationships those the world considers to be weak always suffer. However, Etheredge argues that with a return to Mary, her humility and dependence on God, there is still hope for conversion. A rich and insightful book, Etheredge and his contributors give their readers much on which to reflect.

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