Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Tuesday, Oct 16, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, October 16, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Birth of mouse pups from same-sex parents brings to light major scientific and ethical issues
It isn't often that an immediate research report from scientists leads to the latest front in the moral revolution. But that's exactly what happened. It happened just over the last several days as Scientific American reported in its story, "Same-Sex Mice Parents Give Birth to Healthy Brood." The author is Dina Fine Maron.
The article begins, "Baby-making science has crossed a new threshold, at least in rodents. A team of scientists in China has managed to create a small number of apparently healthy mouse pups from same-sex female parents. The researchers," we are told, "also generated offspring from two mouse dads, but those pups all died shortly after birth, underscoring the fact that the new technique still faces serious hurdles."
Now, many of us looking at these kinds of stories over time recognize a familiar theme. It is the theme that there is a revolution taking place in reproduction. Now, I didn't say in human reproduction. That's a revolution, of course, having to do with everything from in vitro fertilization to all kinds of experiments or at least threatened experiments concerning human reproduction.
But here we are talking about the reproduction of rodents. We're talking about mice. But this is not just a story that has interest or has implication for the rodent world, it has implications for the human world. And that's immediately where the headline went, "Same-Sex Mice Parents." Now, wait just a minute. Who in the world would same-sex mice parents be?
And furthermore, ask yourself the question, how would that headline make sense say we were to rewind history just a matter of decades? The term same-sex parents wouldn't make any more sense than the phrase same-sex mice parents.
But let's look at the article from Scientific American, because as it continues, it tells us that scientists in China have now crossed a major threshold using the genetic experimentation technique known as CRISPR, that is C-R-I-S-P-R.
As we've discussed on The Briefing for a matter of years now, this CRISPR technology has either the promise or the threat, depending upon how you look at both the science and at human dignity to redefine what it means to be human. To attack, perhaps, certain human genetic diseases but it also at the same time offers the rather draconian frightening possibility of redefining what it means to be human, of changing the human germ line, making changes that would be passed on from generation to generation.
But going back to China and the latest headline as Scientific American tells us, these researchers in China have created a small number, here's another key term, of apparently healthy mouse pups from same-sex female parents.
Now, let's pause here for a moment, these mouse pups are referred to scientifically as bi-maternal, meaning that they had two mothers. They are the products of genetic material from two different females. Now, what makes this important is not that this is the first bi-maternal reproduction, that was announced also by scientists back in 2004, but rather that in this particular case, using the CRISPR technology, they were able to take the genetic material from two mothers, that is two mother rodents, and create a brood of again apparently healthy female offspring.
In the animal world it is not unknown among some species for reproduction to take place without the action and contribution of a male. This is known as parthenogenesis and it happens among some species. It does not happen amongst most mammals and it does not happen, in particular, amongst human beings.
But as I said, the big issue here is not really about mice, it's about human beings and just in case we had to wait, we didn't have to wait long in the Scientific American report because in one of the earliest paragraphs we read this, "If the process can be vastly improved, and if it works well in larger mammals, it may eventually offer hope to human same-sex couples who want to have kids that are biologically related to both parents."
Now, even in this paragraph, there is the acknowledgment that even if this kind of technology were to advance, if it were to be successful in larger mammals before human beings, there would still be huge ethical issues. Now, what huge ethical issues might Scientific American recognize in this paragraph? It would be this, "It would remain extremely controversial—in part because offspring from two females would not have Y chromosomes, and thus could only be female."
Yes, you heard that exactly right. The XX composition of the female genetic structure means that there is no Y chromosome whatsoever. So, if you have offspring drawn only from this kind of bi-maternal pairing, two mothers, neither of which has a Y chromosome, then you cannot possibly, even hypothetically, produce a male. So this would mean that on the maternal side, you would be able to create, according to this technology, offspring which would be female that would be drawn from both of the genetic contributions made by two different maternal contributors.
Now, if nothing else at least at this point, what is underlined is the one gender characteristic of the research in its success reported from China and at least at this point, the one gender potential that this hold for the future, even as Scientific American so quickly got to the fact that is could mean the promise of genetic children from same-sex couples.
As it turns out, even under the limited circumstances of the Chinese experimentation on mice, the healthy mice, or at least the so far believed to be healthy offspring, were only from the female bi-parents, that is the bi-maternal pair, and they could only produce females. So, if anything, you're only looking at half the equation. But you are looking at a very politically powerful half of the equation.
Scientific American sought comment from a professor of genetics of the Harvard Medical School, not involved in this experiment. He said, "From a scientific point of view, even for mice this is very difficult, and for primates and humans, it's going to be 10 times more difficult.”
But here is where from a Christian worldview perspective we have to note that the scientific hurdles pale over against the moral and ethical issues that we are confronted with here.
In its report on the Chinese experiment, the BBC went to Dr. Teresa Holm of the University of Auckland. She said that the research, "May even lead to the development of ways for same-sex couples," she means human couples of course, "to reproduce healthy children of their own."
She went on to warn that there are significant ethical and safety concerns, in her words, that would need to be overcome.
The BBC summarizing these ethical concerns says, "It would not be allowed to happen until scientists could be sure any resultant children would grow up mentally and physically normal."
There is so much just in that one sentence. For one thing, it's implausible that there would be any authority who could say that such an experiment could not happen except under certain ethical circumstances. It might be possible to make that claim in a limited way in a context such as the United States or even most European nations where there are laws and there are also principles and policies from major research groups that might hold that kind of restraint. But this experiment was done in China and elsewhere in the world, China and in other places, there are researchers who are breaking all the rules already. So it's implausible to say that this kind of research would not be allowed until scientists "could be sure any resultant children would grow up mentally and physically normal."
But that's also really interesting. How in the world would they define growing up mentally and physically normal? How in this age, how especially in the context of this kind of announcement about a scientific experiment that would change, in a large sense, irreversibly what it means to be human and certainly what it means for human beings to reproduce.
The politics, especially in service to the moral revolution, became very clear at Hannah Devlin's report for The Guardian, a major London newspaper. In one of the earliest paragraphs we read this, "There is no imminent prospect of the techniques being used clinically in people, but the findings demonstrate that the biological barriers to same-sex reproduction can, technically, be overcome."
Now, in all honesty, that's not exactly fair as a representation of the research that has been reported from China. You'll recall here, we're talking about a limited number of apparently healthy mice pups and this only bi-maternal, not bi-paternal, and only producing female mice. It's a long way from saying that the barriers, the biological barriers to same-sex reproduction can technically be overcome.
But that's the kind of claim you can expect in the immediate aftermath of this kind of research. And what that tells us, as we are trying to analyze this by worldview, is that a statement like that reflects a hope, a very deeply felt, deeply urgent hope that indeed these biological barriers can be overcome. And that is because as Christians we have to understand that behind the moral and sexual revolution is an utter unvarnished attempt to try to overcome what biology has limited throughout all of human history thus far.
And, let's just be clear about what biology has required. It has required for the reproduction of human beings a mother and a father. It has required a donor female and a donor male. It has required a sperm, it has required an egg. Trying to overcome that is not only about trying, as scientists may say, to understand human reproduction or even as they might say, to try to come up with therapeutic advances for treating genetic illnesses. It is not only, as some may claim, a way to help heterosexual married couples have children with genetic contributions from both mother and father. It is actually an attempt to try to break out of the shackles of requiring a sperm and an egg.
Requiring males at all, and at least some of the literature in the immediate aftermath of this scientific experiment have made clear, that is exactly what some hope for. It is exactly what some hope are promised. That it would make males basically biologically unnecessary because you wouldn't need a male contribution.
National Geographic in its report by Maya Wei-Haas, pointed out the limitations of this particular experiment, but then went on to report, "Still, the new study is an encouraging step toward a better understanding of the barriers that prevent such genetic coupling between individuals of the same sex. The work," says National Geographic, "also raises a slew of ethical questions among experts, with the health of future offspring being the primary concern."
Azim Surani, a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge, also not involved in the Chinese experiment, said, "When you do the gene targeting, you may get some unintended side effects. You may alter other sequences which you didn't mean to alter."
Well, that is applicable not only to perhaps unintended genetic consequences, we need to point out the even larger picture of perhaps unintended moral consequences.
But before we think about even the unintended moral consequences, we need to understand how quickly these headlines got to what we might call, the intended moral consequences. The intended moral consequence of breaking out of the shackles of human biological reproduction requiring a mother and a father, a male and a female.
In one of the most interesting sections of the National Geographic report, a law professor at George Washington University, a specialist in bioethics and health policy by the name of Sonia Suter said, "We're going to have to really think hard, as a society, about what our threshold should be for doing this kind of research."
Well, that again is an understatement. But Professor Suter goes on to make an even more amazing statement later in the article. She is cited as saying that the primary ethical concerns in her view are about safety. But then the entire article makes the most significant shift when Professor Suter is cited as saying, "I personally think that if we view the inability of opposite sex couples to reproduce as something that deserves technological intervention, then it seems to me that I don't think we can make a coherent argument against letting same-sex couples do the same thing."
Well, there's the bomb going off. Why? It is because in that change of ground in those sequences of statements, of words, what you see here is the argument shifting from whether or not it's safe to employ this kind of technology to whether or not it would possible to come up with a coherent argument for why same-sex couples would not be allowed this technology if heterosexual couples are so allowed.
Now, notice how the ground is shifted here. It shifted so quickly, we're not talking about months and years and decades, we're talking about just a few paragraphs in a single news article about a single recent experiment in China. The moral argument shifts from can we do it to can we do it safely to should we do it and if we are allowed to do it, shall we be able to deny anyone access to this technology? And you'll notice immediately anyone becomes quite specifically same-sex couples.
Breaking free of biological shackles: Headlines reveal attempt to discredit the family and unravel creation
But I will at least have to allow some of these scientific journals the claim that they have offered some restraint, that is not the case with the science column that appeared at Forbes, that is at forbes.com by Adam Barsouk. The headline of this article, "Same-Sex Mice Can Now Have Kids. Are We Next?"
And then listen to the introductory words of this article, "Recent research has left the conventional wisdom that you need a mommy and a daddy to have a baby in the dust. But scientists are only beginning to uncover the molecular battle, between the genes of your parents, which rages on in you."
Barsouk then goes on to explain the experiment in China. But look at that introductory sentence. Let's go back to it. "Recent research," he says, "has left the conventional wisdom that you need a mommy and a daddy to have a baby in the dust"? Seriously? Let's just state the obvious, that is not a responsible lead sentence for this kind of news article.
Well, what exactly has been left in the dust? Even with the most advanced forms of in vitro fertilization for human beings, you still need a sperm and an egg. You still need, in a genetic sense if nothing else, a mother and a father. You still need donor gametes from a man and woman, even if you don't need anything else. In that sense, having a mother and a father as necessary to having a baby has not been left in the dust.
So, according to the moral revolutionaries, what really has been left in the dust? Well, you might say this, maybe marriage has been left in the dust because we have now made possible the moral legitimation in the larger society of having children without a mother and a father as husband and wife. That has been left in the dust by this culture and its headlong effort to join the moral revolution.
What else has been left in the dust? Maybe even knowing who your mother and father is or the right to know who your mother and father is. Maybe that's been left in the dust. Or even knowing that your mother and father knew each other, that's been left in the dust. Maybe even having some sense of understanding that a child needs a mother and a father, that's rather intentionally been left in the dust by the secular society.
But let's just note, at this point, what hasn't been left in the dust, even in contrast to the claim of the first sentence of this article, is the fact that you still need a mommy and a daddy to have a baby. But let's be honest, there are those, as this article makes very clear along with the others celebrating this Chinese announcement, there are those who quickly want to be able to leave in the dust the idea that humanity requires a male and a female, a mother and a father.
And as we have seen so often on The Briefing, in this case the press coverage, which reflects the cultural expectation and urgency, is probably in the long run a bigger story even than the scientific announcement that was here made. That scientific announcement is almost sure to be followed up by either retractions or clarifications or further research and the latest study which comes up with the latest headline. But the headlines continue as a part of driving the moral energy in this culture toward the redefinition of marriage, the redefinition of sex, the redefinition of gender, the redefinition of family, and the redefinition ultimately of what it means to be human.
And this where Christians must understand that underneath this all is a basic effort to try to unravel creation. One of the fundamental assumptions of the Christian worldview made so explicit in scripture from the very beginning of the book of Genesis is that the creation as we known it is made by an omnipotent, self-existent, sovereign and glorious God and he has made it to reflect his glory. He has made it in such a way that after every single day of creation, he himself declared his creation to be good. In the glory of that creation, even after the fall, we see God's glory in making human beings in his image male and female, created he them.
And then we also see in the first two chapters of Genesis, the conjugal relation between the husband and the wife. We see that in tandem with the divine command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Now here's something else that Christians have to understand and previous generations of Christians didn't have to either understand this or certainly to articulate it. It comes down to this, we are as we reproduce. If we change the method of our reproduction, we are effectively changing the nature of what it means to be human. Certainly, we're changing the nature of what it means to be sexual beings, to be reproductive beings, to be male and female.
That's a stunning realization, it tells us the depth of the rebellion that is now set loose in our society. Whether it rides on the supposed cultural authority of science or on the authority of the new moral and sexual revolutionaries.
Is it morally right to bring extinct species back from the dead?
But next we have to shift to the fact that The Wall Street Journal just in recent days reported a very different kind of scientific issue, a very different kind of scientific research. But maybe, upon reflection, it's not all that different after all.
Amy Dockser Marcus wrote an article with the headline, "Meet the Scientists Bringing Extinct Species Back From the Dead." She begins by telling us that the very same kind of genetic technique we just reported about from China, is being used elsewhere.
In particular she takes us to an animal research facility west of Melbourne in Australia where scientists are using are the very same technology we just reported about from China in order to take genetic material from the extinct species known as the passenger pigeon and to exert it into living species of pigeon in order eventually to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction. There's even a new scientific term for that, de-extinction.
But it is also not without controversy. Not so much about the safety of the genetic experimentation, but the question, is it really morally right to bring extinct species back to life? It's one thing to talk about the passenger pigeon, it would be another thing, let's just say, to talk about the pterodactyl or the saber tooth tiger.
You might not be alarmed to have a passenger pigeon fly over the children's playground, but having a saber tooth tiger or a pterodactyl or something else show up, well, that might be a different thing all together.
But as you're looking at this article, it is really interesting to see the kind of moral issues that are advanced here. The ones that are discussed here. For instance, you have some scientists saying that it is wrong to bring back from extinction any species. One of the arguments made by scientists against de-extinction of any species is that the ecosystem of planet earth exists in a certain balance at any given time. And furthermore, there have been species going extinct all the way through the world's biological history. We don't know why some animals became extinct, it might be right, it might be wrong. We might not even know if it's right or wrong to bring certain species back. We don't know what the impact might be on other species and thus the argument is when you have a species that's gone extinct, it's wrong to bring it back.
Others are arguing, look, if we can ascertain the human beings had a hand in the reason why a certain species, like maybe the passenger pigeon went extinct, then maybe there would be justification for trying to bring such a species back.
But then that raises another issue. Would it just look like a passenger pigeon? Or would it act like a passenger pigeon? Because here's another very interesting reality of the animal world, animals, especially animals like pigeons and tigers, they are social beings. They exist also in an animal social context. That social context has changed. What if a passenger pigeon, to put it bluntly, doesn't know what it means to be a passenger pigeon in the 21st century now that they have been extinct.
But it's also really interesting to look at arguments against de-extinction based upon the fact that we simply don't know if we were to bring a species back what it's going to do once it is back.
In one of the most interesting sections of this article from The Wall Street Journal, you have a scientist who raises some of these issues but then points out, in effect, that maybe some animals actually deserve to be extinct.
Let me go to this paragraph, "The dodo exemplifies this, the flightless bird, native to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, nested on the ground and laid only one egg at a time. Settlers who arrived in 1638 brought cats, rats and pigs that devoured dodo eggs." This scientist said, "There is no point in bringing the dodo back, their eggs will be eaten the same way that made them go extinct the first time."
A final statement made by a scientist in this Wall Street Journal report is this, "We are going to need a new biology and new names for all this."
That gets us back where we started. We're going to need a new biology and new names for all of this? If that's true for the moral question about bringing back extinct species, or de-extinction, how much more profoundly is this true when we're talking about changing human reproduction? It is amazing to me that the language of concern in the article about bringing back extinct species seems to be of an even higher moral state of alarm than the article about transforming how human beings reproduce.
The moral pathology of our age: Morticians take steps to prevent opioid exposure after overdose deaths
But finally, as we're thinking morally about signs of the time, I need to go to an article that appeared in recent days in The Baltimore Sun, it's by Lillian Reed. Reed reports about a new danger to those who are involved with the dead. Those who work for mortuary services, funeral directors and embalmers and others who now face the danger of an opioid overdose simply by handling the bodies of those who have died by that means.
It turns out there is a very real danger to those who are dealing with the funeral services and the mortuary services for the dead of such overdoses that the toxic levels of opioids in some of these bodies can be so high that they can pose a direct and deadly threat to those who are involved in preparing the body for funeral and burial.
This article in The Baltimore Sun introduces a term I have not heard before and that is last responders. We're familiar with the term first responders, but in this article it is suggested that those who work in mortuary services and in funeral homes are the last responders.
Reed reports, "As the number of drug related deaths continues to climb, funeral directors are calling themselves the last responders in the opioid epidemic. The moniker," she says, "represents an anxiety within the funeral industry over how aggressive licensed morticians should be in preparing for overdoses at their businesses."
So as we're thinking about the moral pathology of our age, just consider this aspect of the opioid epidemic you might not have thought of. I hadn't. Now we're being told that these last responders, those who have to deal with the bodies, who are the victims of this epidemic, they themselves have to deal with the fact they could become the next victim simply by contact with the body.
It's almost as if we face here a parable of Biblical proportions. But if that's true of this last story, it is certainly even more true of the first.