Book Review: Matters of Life and Death

Matters of Life and Death John Wyatt

Published by IVP, this book has a foreword by John Stott, and the author is a professor of Ethics and Perinatology (me neither, this is “the branch of obstetrics [medicine relating to childbirth] dealing with the specific period of time around childbirth), who is a specialist in the medical care of newborn babies. A committed Christian and part of the church at All Souls, Wyatt is well placed to speak into the maelstrom of ‘human dilemmas’.

Its worth noting at the outset that this book is superbly accessible as well as deeply intelligent. Coming from the theological (rather than medical) end of the spectrum I appreciated the efforts Wyatt has gone to in making some technical and controversial medical practices accessible to the non-medics. This is, I think, a book for anyone who is interested in the relation of Christianity to medical ethics, and is perfect for medical students, theology students and so on. Wyatt writes in a calm, non-sensational style, with a good layout, strong references and sources: it is, as far as books go, a pretty complete package.

Without wanting to ruin the end of the book, Wyatt comes (With great compassion, clarity and care) to orthodox and passionate Christian conclusions. This is one of the best articulations of a Christian medical ethic that I’ve come across – and I’ve known a range of Christian medics for most of my life! The issues that Wyatt engages with are pertinent and broad, but his special focus as a professional ‘baby doctor’ is particularly useful when talking about the many complex issues around birth. But none of the controversial stuff (insofar as dissenting from popular opinion in attempt to follow Jesus) comes until after Wyatt has built his argument from a biblical, orthodox, positive and hopeful view of human beings. It is wonderful to see the train of thought flowing from an examination of Genesis to intelligent grappling with the complex issues of modern medicine.

As a bit of a nerd for history (and particularly Church history!) I loved the way Wyatt articulated an understanding of historical perspectives on various medical issues. This assists what he is saying both generally and specifically about these topics: he is able to calmly remind the reader of what human beings (and indeed the scientific and medical professions) have thought and done throughout history. This culminates in a fascinating penultimate chapter (The final one is about “The Future of Humanity”) looking at the relationship between Christianity and the Hippocratic oath – that all doctors used to take (EDIT 17/9/12 – I’m reliably informed by a medical friend that this isn’t the case anymore, due to the complexities of issues such as those highlighted in this book). This chapter bears the hallmarks of a powerful conclusion: to anyone in the medical profession who takes their faith seriously, and to anyone in the medical profession who would honor the oath they took.

In closing, I seriously recommend this book. I don’t recommend it because leaders I respect and admire have endorsed it. I don’t recommend it because its published by one of my favourite publishers. I don’t recommend it because it has a foreword by one of the greatest Christian teachers/leaders of recent times. I recommend it because it is superbly readable, intelligently engaged, compassionately articulating of biblical truth, and a really excellent piece of Christian writing. If you have an interest in a Christian perspective on Medical Ethical Issues, or have the honour of being a Medic (Student, Doctor, Consultant or whatever), its worth reading. If, like myself, you are grateful for the rich heritage of the Christian tradition but struggle to articulate it in relation to the modern dilemmas of humanity, its worth reading. Wyatt does a great job of making complex issues understandable – and bringing the truth and hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear. 

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