Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Tuesday, Mar. 13, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, March 13, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why the loss of frozen embryos is a tragedy infinitely greater than many Americans realize
One of the symptoms of our age is an increasing unawareness, a lack of concern for the fact that we are living in that brave new world of reproductive technologies that previous generations worried about and warned about, but it’s here and it’s been here for some time. One of the signs of the times is that right now, there are hundreds of thousands at the very least, hundreds of thousands of frozen human embryos all over the country. Furthermore, there are human reproductive cells, both male and female, frozen all over America.
I mentioned the United States particularly because this nation is often individually recognized as what many call the Wild, Wild West of modern reproductive technologies. Even as many other Western countries and for that matter, countries around the world outside the West now have access to these kinds of technologies, the leading edge is often found right here and more importantly, a lack of legal regulation about so many of these reproductive technologies means that what would be illegal or unethical elsewhere is just business as usual in the United States of America. Legal in the United States is virtually any form of reproductive technology short of human cloning, and by the way, there is no absolute law against human cloning even though there are ethical guidelines and there are limitations upon research funds.
When it comes to surrogate parenting, individual states may have some restrictions but the United States, writ large, has no basic legal restriction on surrogate parenting and whatever legal arrangements might be derived. Also, basically, off the radar screens of many Americans is the fact that the entire process of human reproduction, something that had been blessedly simple and quite organic throughout all of human history until recently is becoming more and more abstracted, and there are assumptions being made.
Amongst those assumptions is the idea that men and women can put off having babies now in order to have babies later, their own babies, and specifically, there are many men and women who have banked their reproductive sells in the hope of one day out there, somewhere in the future, using those cells in order to have a baby, but in a span of just one week, the first week of this month in the year 2018, news reports came from health clinics, reproductive laboratories in both San Francisco and Cleveland that there had been a technological failure, that it is suspected that in some or even in thousands of cases, the sperm and eggs and embryos that had been frozen may have thawed.
The Associated Press reported yesterday, “Two fertility clinics across the country from each other experienced equipment failures on the same day that may have damaged hundreds of frozen eggs and embryos, something that a fertility expert called a stunning coincidence and that is already producing lawsuits from crestfallen couples.”
Now, clearly, there are vast worldview implications here. Just trying to look at the story from a biblical worldview raises a host of questions but even before we get there, there are some necessary clarifications. For one thing, this Associated Press story begins by speaking of very troubled, worried couples, worried about the fate of their sperm and eggs and embryos, but we need to clarify the fact that there is no requirement in most of these clinics that there be anything related to a couple. There could be individuals, either male or female who are banking their reproductive futures by means of this new reproductive technologies.
The Associated Press goes on to indicate that amongst the facilities affected was university hospitals and its fertility clinic in suburban Cleveland. According to this report, officials there discovered a storage tank malfunction on the fourth of March and they said that as many as 2,000 frozen eggs and embryos may had been damaged. Damaged, in this case, could be all the way to being unusable. The AP continued that a San Francisco fertility clinic reported that on that same day, thousands of frozen eggs and embryos may had been damaged in a liquid nitrogen failure in a storage tank at that facility.
Specific worldview implications remind us of the fact that we are here talking about one of the most basic functions the Creator assigned to his human creatures, that of reproduction. In Genesis 1 verse 27, we are reminded that Adam and Eve, as the first parents of the human race, on behalf of us all were told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and furthermore, we discover in the biblical theology that is laid out for us about human gender, sex, and reproduction, and marriage that the having of children is an understanding of what it means to receive God’s gift of life and to continue to demonstrate that gift through successive generations.
Furthermore, we are told that the only appropriate context for that continuation of the human race and human reproduction is marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That conjugal relationship of the man and the woman naturally leads to reproduction and the having of children, but what we see in the use of these technologies is, on the one hand, a technology or an assortment of technologies that will allow certain married couples to have access to the kinds of mechanisms that may allow them to overcome problems in fertility. That would be good news, but the bad news that comes with it is that the very same technologies also come with a potential to abstract human reproduction from human sexuality, and furthermore, to abstract both reproduction and sexuality from the integrity of marriage.
This is where Christians also have to remember that according to a biblical theology, when we are talking about human embryos, we are talking about human beings. The biblical worldview affirms the dignity and sanctity of every human life from the moment of fertilization all the way to natural death, and that means that when we are talking about human embryos, we are talking about human beings. Now, that is an assertion that the church makes on the authority of scripture, but it is an assertion that the secular world now denies and disregards with abandon.
This comes not only as we think about reproductive technologies but also such realities as human embryonic stem cell research that requires the creation of a human embryo and then, the destruction of human embryo for medical research. According to the biblical worldview, you're not merely destroying a human embryo, you are terminating the life of a human being, as is now routinely extended by the secular worldview beyond the embryo all the way through the prenatal period where the inhabitant of the womb is denied as a human person. Well, that is now the default mentality of the world around us and furthermore, our system of law when it comes to human embryos. Instead, we are often hearing the human embryos are owned by other human beings, and specifically, that both the gametes, the sperm and the egg and the embryos are owned by individuals or perhaps by couples.
Of course, this leads to all kinds of new legal terrain including the fact that the former husband of the actress Sofia Vergara is now suing her and suing her in the name of their common embryos in order to require her allowments of those embryos to be transferred to a womb. Back, to the Associated Press story about the fertility clinics in Cleveland and in San Francisco, one of the couples speaking from Cleveland said, as the wife is speaking her, “It’s heartbreaking, just heartbreaking. The medical community calls it tissue,” she said. “I like to think of it as my children.”
Well, that is a profound moral statement, and in this case, this wife and mom is exactly right. She is speaking of these human embryos as her children, and that is, according to the biblical worldview, exactly what they are. The couple mentioned here, which the wife is speaking, has already conceived a child, now a two-year-old little boy by means of the same reproductive technology, but now, she is speaking of the other embryos that would be effectively the brothers and sisters of this two-year-old, and she is appropriately speaking of them given the very threat of their loss as her children.
It’s also very interesting that a report from National Public Radio on the same incident specifically related to the fertility clinic in Cleveland included a statement from an official for the clinic stating that what was described as the cryogenic failure, that’s the failure of the liquid nitrogen tanks, represented, “a potential loss of eggs and embryos,” and the official went on to say that this “is a tragedy.”
Well, what exactly is meant by the fact that it is a tragedy? If this was just human tissue, then are we just speaking of the loss of human tissue as a tragedy? Is this speaking of potential human beings? Is the loss of those potential human beings then a tragedy? No. The statement made by that mom was exactly right. We are not talking about the loss of potential human beings, specifically when we’re speaking of the embryos. We are speaking of children. The official with the clinic in Cleveland was absolutely right. This announcement comes as a tragedy, but those who operate and think by the means of a biblical Christian worldview understand that the tragedy is actually infinitely greater than what this official seems to understand.
Surrogate pregnancies and frozen embryos pose new ethical questions
Next, as we think about this story, I want to go back to headline news from several weeks ago, a story that I did not discuss then on The Briefing that seems incredibly appropriate now. The headline in The Atlantic from December 21, 2017 was this. A woman gave birth from an embryo frozen for 24 years. The subhead in the article, “This embryo and I could have been best friends.” Sarah Zhang reporting for The Atlantic tells us about the birth of Emma Wren Gibson. She was frozen as an embryo in the year 1992 but she was born just a few days after Thanksgiving in 2017. That is more than 25 years later.
As The Atlantic reports, it’s the longest an embryo is known to have been frozen before being born as a baby. The reporter goes on to tell us that the embryo that became Emma, that’s very interesting, the embryo that became Emma … Actually, we’d have to say the embryo that was Emma, Emma as an embryo, well, according to the report, she is, “only a year younger than the woman who gave birth to her, Tina Gibson.” The woman said, “This embryo and I could have been best friends.”
Now, in a valiant story, we are told that this woman and her husband adopted Emma as a frozen embryo. According to the article, Emma came from an anonymous couple who went through an in vitro fertilization. The story says in parenthesis, where a sperm and egg are united in a lab, and donated their remaining frozen embryos, which have remained suspended in time for more than two decades.
Now, what’s really important about The Atlantic article is that it goes back to the warnings, when in vitro fertilization first took place, about what would happen. By the way, the first IVF baby was named Louise Brown and she was born in 1978, so we’re talking about a blink in human history, a very recent technology that is now taken by many simply for granted without thinking through many of the moral consequences, but speaking of those moral consequences, one of the leading thinkers of the age in 1978, James Watson, he was one of those who discovered the structure of human genetics. It was James Watson operating from a purely secular, very liberal worldview who nonetheless warned that if IVF became routine, as he said, well, all chaos, that’s not the word he used, will break loose politically and morally all over the world.
The Atlantic piece then says, “Others warned of the slippery slope to surrogate pregnancies, designer babies, and artificial wombs.” Now, again, I simply point to the fact that many people say that slippery slope arguments are always, and in every case, to be avoided. By the way, as a logical fault, a slippery slope argument is one that warns of results without any explanation of why they would be inevitable. It’s not a slippery slope argument when you provide the argument for the mechanism or the evidence of why a result would be inevitable.
In this case, those who warned about surrogate pregnancies, designer babies, and artificial wombs can now, in 2018, take at least the strange but tragic satisfaction of knowing that indeed, the warning about surrogate pregnancies has now become a reality. Designer babies, not a reality yet as a positive qualification. That is to say parents are not able, at this point, to use genetic technologies to decide actually what traits they will accept in a baby positively, but we do have designer babies negatively. That is to say, with diagnostic tests, parents are now able to identify many genetic traits of a baby that has been conceived as an embryo and say, “We are not going to accept that embryo.” You might not want to call that a designer baby, but it is a designer baby if only at this point by negative selection.
Furthermore, if you go around the campus of a major fertility clinic or for that matter, the campus of a major American academic institution such as a large research university, you will find advertisements in the back of the campus newspaper … These days, of course, you can find them on the web even faster in which there are companies trying to buy sperm and egg from college students and from other young persons and they are rating them on genetic characteristics, often making these gametes, these human reproductive cells available in catalogs according to the ranked IQ and SAT scores and other issues such as athletic abilities, color of eyes, and color of hair. When you're told that designer babies are merely a threat, just look at these catalogs and see the reality for yourself.
As for the third issue in this list, artificial wombs learned about back in the year 1978, here, we have to recognize that at this point, there is no successful human artificial womb that reports coming to us regularly of what are claimed to be breakthroughs on the way to creating just what was here was warned. Now, with this story in The Atlantic very much in mind, it includes a statement by a reproductive scientist named Barry Behr and his statement was quoted from Scientific American. He said that it is anticipated that frozen human embryos might last as long as a century or two.
Then, he went on to say, “The nature of reproduction and building families does not really foster an environment that would allow you to wait 50 years before you thaw your embryos out unless your daughter wanted to carry her sibling, for example, which in theory is possible. A person born from IVF may still have sibling embryos frozen and when they reach 30 and are infertile, could technically thaw out the embryos that were created at the same time they were created, gestate them, and deliver their sibling.” He finished, “That hasn’t happened yet but it could be possible.”
Well, the news report in which that quote is found about the birth of little Emma indicates that of course, it could now happen because in this case, the thawed embryo was only one year younger than the mother. The next time you're told or warned about that brave new world of reproductive technologies somewhere potentially out there in the future, just remind yourselves and the one whom you're speaking that we’re living in that brave new world of medical technology right now.
Has the normalization of marijuana become a matter of social justice?
Next, we shift from reproductive technology to marijuana, an incredibly interesting article, this time from the state of New Jersey. Karen Rouse reports for The New York Times, “During his campaign for governor of New Jersey, Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, pledged to legalize the recreational use of marijuana telling Democrats at a party conference last year in Atlantic City that creating a new tax revenue was not what was motivating him.” The then candidate for governor said, “People ask me all the time, “Hey, are you sure you can generate $300 million from the legalization of marijuana?” Mr. Murphy said then citing a figure that his campaign had trumpeted. “I say,” he said, “You know what, I’m not sure but that’s not the question. We’re not doing it for the dollars. We’re doing it for social justice.”
Well, this just reminds me of the old political adage that when people tell you they're not doing it for money, you can bank on the fact that they're doing it for the money. There is no doubt that the great push toward the legalization of marijuana in this country is driven by two massive financial motivations. The first has to do with an entire new stream, indeed a cascade of profits coming from the sale and manufacture and packaging and licensing of marijuana, but the second is tax revenue, because in every single state that has thus far legalized marijuana, tax revenue has become a major issue, and if anyone’s honest, it is a major motivation.
Legislators that have run out of courage to raise other taxes honestly have decided they can raise a new tax revenue stream by legalizing marijuana, and it’s disguised so that citizens are not outraged by having their taxes raised. The really interesting aspect of this news article in The New York Times about Governor Murphy of New Jersey is the fact that he claims that his motivation isn’t the money, but rather, social justice. The Times went on to report, “Mr. Murphy argues that the disproportionate number of African Americans who are jailed on marijuana charges is a main reason to legalize the drug,” and, said the Times, “He has the support of civil rights groups, cannabis business lobbyists, lawyers, doctors who prescribe medical marijuana, and out of state cannabis growers.”
Now, just looking at that list in that single sentence, just consider how many of those listed in that series have an explicitly and irreducibly financial motivation, but you'll notice the civil rights groups are mentioned here and the governor of New Jersey says it’s a social justice issue. Well, here, we should pause for a moment. There is absolutely sufficient evidence to indicate that a disproportionate number of prosecutions, jail terms, and criminalizations on the issue of marijuana, that that proportion is taking place in the African American community. An African American is far more likely to be criminalized and jailed and to receive a penalty and a criminal record for the very same activity with marijuana that would not lead to the same result for a white American. That is an injustice and it is clearly documented.
Now, it’s related to other issues, related to criminal law, but without doubt, there is a disproportionate impact. No one’s denying that across the political spectrum. At this point, the story would be interesting enough, but it gets a lot more interesting with a very strange turn the article takes in the next sentence. I quote, “But now that Mr. Murphy occupies the governor’s office, a major legislative obstacle is emerging. Ronal L. Rice, the state’s longest serving black senator and leader of its Black Caucus, Senator Rice said, “It’s always been said that the issue is not money. The issue is social justice but it’s being sold on the backs of black folk and brown people. It’s clear that there is big, big money pushing special interests to sell this to our communities.””
The Times then goes on to acknowledge, “The growing and selling of marijuana has already generated billions of dollars in the nine states where it is legal, but it is an industry that is overwhelmingly white.” The Times went on, and I quote, “Mr. Rice fears the consequences would be dire in cities like Newark, which is already wrestling with a variety of problems including widespread heroin addiction and a foreclosure crisis. Cannabis stores, he believes, would proliferate in black communities much like liquor stories, and will produce a new generation of drug abusers.”
The senator’s statement was echoed by the Reverend Charles Boyer of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury, New Jersey who said that the worst thing that could happen was for communities most harmed by prohibition not to have a say about legalization. The pastor asked, and I quote, “Do we want to be the ones responsible for playing a part in a system that will makes tons of young, white millionaires after years of making hundreds of thousands of poor, black felons?”
From a Christian worldview perspective, one of the things to note here is that old adage that when people say it’s not about the money, it is about the money and this article makes very clear that the push towards the legalization of marijuana is being energized by those who have a clear financial interest, the growers, and the marketers of cannabis, companies that want to sell marijuana, and those who want to sell paraphernalia and the entire enterprise all the way up to legislators who want those hundreds of millions of dollars of promised annual revenue.
I also want to state that I believe that the governor of New Jersey is absolutely right when he says that the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana is indeed a social justice issue, but as the statement by the state senator and the pastor there in New Jersey made clear, just saying that it’s a social justice issue does not, in any way, point towards a moral justification for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, certainly not for normalizing it.
Christians are called to think very carefully about these issues animated by love of God and love of neighbor, but that also means that when we have a claim, that there is an injustice and an argument is made in the name of social justice. We need to make certain that we do not replace one injustice with yet another.