Monday, January 14, 2019
Monday, Jan. 14, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, January 14, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Even with their promise, are reproductive technologies compatible with human dignity?
Babies are big in the news this week. The cover story in TIME Magazine has a cute baby on the cover with the headline, "The future of babies, a special report." The subhead, "Gene editing, uterus transplants, and three biological parents." Explaining the baby on the cover, the magazine says, "This boy is the first baby born in the US to a mother with a transplanted uterus."
By the time you look at the total package in this week's cover story of TIME Magazine, you are looking at five separate articles or columns, but the headline in the entire series is this: Medical advances and new approaches are changing the way we think about fertility.
Now before we look at the articles themselves, let's consider the slight of hand that has taken place between the cover story in the magazine and the introduction to the package. The cover story was titled, "The future of babies," but the inner package is entitled, "Changing the way we think about fertility." Those are two very different things.
Now why would that be the case? Before we look at the content, let's just consider how advertising works. Cover stories in magazines historically have been efforts to try to attract attention. And that's true even in the declining age of print when you consider the increased competition when it comes to trying to sell magazines. A baby on the front is going to be far more interesting than the issue of fertility. Especially if that is presented as something scientific or abstract.
But there is real content to this particular package. The first has to do with what's described as an experimental procedure that could help more couples conceive healthy babies, but the alarm is set off immediately with the next statement, "But it's not allowed in the U.S."
Alice Park is the reporter and what she is telling us about is a new form of genetic engineering. In this case, intended to try to bring about an end to certain forms of mitochondrial disease.
Park tells us, "About 1 in 4,000 people worldwide, 20,000 in the United States, have mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria," she explains, "are present in nearly every cell in the human body, and they provide energy for everything cells do, acting as the body's molecular batteries. They also have their own DNA, and mutations can sometimes cause hearing loss, diabetes, muscle weakness, seizures and heart problems. There are no treatments," she tells us, "for mitochondrial disorders, as it's not possible yet to repair or alter the affected mitochondrial genes using gene therapy."
Now as you look at this story that begins with heartbreaking account of the death of a baby shortly after birth because of this kind of mitochondrial disease, what this tells us is that there is no therapy once the mitochondria are in place in a child or in any human individual. We are told instead that what is now being perhaps promised is a gene editing technique that would remove the threat of the kind of disordered mitochondria.
But, to cut to the bottom line in this story, that would mean a baby that would come, not from one, not from two, but from three different genetic parents. The DNA from three different individuals. That's what changes this from any other kind of human reproduction in the past. This is not only going to require some kind of in vitro fertilization, it's going to require an alteration in the source of the mitochondria for the cells of either the mother or the father, the one producing the egg and the one producing the sperm. Conceivably, as some point, it could be from both, in which case there would not just three DNA donors, but four.
The mitochondria is substituted from a donor from, at this point, one of the parents. But that means that the mitochondria continue through the germ line as well.
Dr. Michio Hirano, medical director of the laboratory of molecular genetics at Columbia University, said, "We are breaking down a barrier that has certainly never been crossed before. Clearly biologically the embryo or person generated has three different sources of DNA, and that's a unique or novel concept."
But immediately after that statement, Alice Park of TIME Magazine tells us that scientists like Michio Hirano and families such as the one profiled in the article looking for the procedure, "Are far more comfortable with that than are policymakers." She continues, "Where scientists and families see a desperately needed strategy for having a baby, ethicists and lawmakers see sticky questions of how to define parental rights and whether permanently rewriting someone's genetic code is morally acceptable."
Park continues, "Genetic treatments are currently being tested to treat cancer and other diseases because those tweaks affect only the individual receiving the therapy. But scientists," she acknowledges, "face much stricter rules when it comes to studies involving altering eggs, sperm or embryos, given that those modifications can be passed on to future generations, and ethicists and lawmakers are not ready to accept the social implications of such a scientific leap." The technology, by the way, is known as MRT for mitochondrial replacement therapy.
Now we have to step back a moment and recognize that just before the end of the 2018 came the ominous announcement from China that the first human baby had been born using the CRISPR gene editing technology. Medical ethicist in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere recoiled in horror, but many have noted that the only real argument that many scientists accept is the argument about when, not the argument about if.
The argument made by many American scientists and medical ethicists was that the scientific researchers in China had not followed the right protocols and that they had jumped ahead in terms of thinking about the kind of technological and ethical boundaries that should be set. That's a very different argument from asking whether or not these technologies are compatible with human dignity in the first place.
The TIME Magazine article does seem to understand that there is something massively moral involved in this technology and in the entire question of gene editing, but the magazine also points to what is at least indicated as the potential promise of this kind of technology.
Jonathan Tilly, chair of the biology department at Northeastern University, a pioneer in this area according to the magazine, is quoted as saying, "We're really changing the landscape of opportunity for people to have a baby."
Now let's just notice another irony at work here. This package of articles has a great deal to do with the fact that so many people are desperate to have babies. So desperate that they are pressing the boundaries of technology and even as America has become what many describe as the wild, wild west of reproductive technologies, at least for now when it comes to these gene editing techniques, that's still, at least for this moment, a step too far for medical professionals and researchers in the United States.
But we need to note that we are a very strange society. We're a society that puts this kind of effort into reproduction, this kind of focus, even in this cover story in TIME Magazine, on babies, and no one is ashamed in this package to use the word baby. It has appeared over and over again in just this first article of the five in this package. There has been no reluctance to use the word baby, it's used with a straight face and of course there's no other word that can be used here and make sense.
But at the same time, we are a society that aborts between 600,000 and 800,000 unborn human beings per year. And we're a society that calls a baby a baby when the baby is wanted as a baby and calls the baby something else when the baby is, for one reason or another, not so wanted.
The same magazine will put out regular articles defending abortion and then turn around and put out a cover story with a miracle baby on the cover and the headline, "The future of babies." There's a cognitive dissonance there, a society that calls a baby a baby when it wants to and refuses to acknowledge that baby as a baby when it doesn't want to.
One other note about this package, one of the medical technologies, one of the medical miracles that is reported on here, has to do with that baby on the cover. And he's identified as the first baby born in the US to a mother with a transplanted uterus. This is the transplantation of a uterus from one woman to another so that the women receiving the uterus will be able to bear her own child.
This is where Christians need to understand, there is nothing inherently wrong, biblically or morally or theologically, with organ transplantation. And so, when you're looking at a uterus transplant in this case, it would be ethically tantamount or the same to a heart transplant or a kidney transplant. So, when you're looking at a package of articles like this, they can include new medical technologies that range from the morally non-problematic, to the morally horrifying.
A new category of gender disappointment: Why some parents are traumatically disappointed after gender reveal parties
But The Washington Post recently gave major attention to babies as well. This article is by Caitlin Gibson, the headline, "Not what they were expecting." The subhead, "Learning baby's gender is a letdown for some."
It's not just a matter that it's a letdown, in the article there is a new issue that is addressed known as "gender disappointment." That's an increasingly common term, we are told by The Washington Post, "A term that has become more widespread in recent years as more parents choose to share their reactions, in gender reveal videos, personal testimonials and online support groups, when they learn whether they're expecting a boy or a girl."
Now, just a few weeks ago on The Briefing I dealt with controversy over the very idea of gender reveal parties. A letter that had been written to The Ethicist Column asking if it could be ethical to attend a baby gender reveal party because that gender reveal party indicates what the writer said is the false assumption that biological sex means gender.
But, as we pointed out in that conversation, gender reveal parties are happening because whether or not people even say they are buying into the ideology against the gender binary, most human beings, including most people even in rather liberal America, still believe in boys and girls the moment that a boy or a girl is born.
The gender reveal parties reveal, again, the kind of cognitive dissonance in a society that increasingly wants to say gender doesn't matter and then wants an entire category, even avalanche, of attention on social media when they announce what the gender of their unborn child is.
But this Washington Post article effectively takes the next step telling us that there's a new category of gender disappointment and it is also tied to social media and the kind of gender reveal events, telling us that some parents are genuinely and evidently traumatically disappointed when the reveal turns out to be the gender that was less desired than the other.
Now when you think about the course of human history, you have got to consider honestly the fact that the sex of a child has often changed history. But you also have to remember that the gender reveal party throughout most of human existence would otherwise be known as birth.
But when you look, for instance, at the important of monarchy and dynasty, you understand that kings of England and other nations had the first responsibility to produce an heir and that heir was supposed to be a son. And there was sometimes tremendous disappointment when the child turned out to be a girl.
But the kind of gender disappointment we're talking about in this article isn't disappointment with a monarchial dynasty or a kingdom at stake, it's disappointment simply about the fact that they wanted a girl and it turns out to be a boy, or the parents wanted a boy and it turns out to be a girl. And now their gender disappointment is a thing. A thing they're going to share with others, that becomes a matter of social consequence. Yes, once again, this is the kind of people we have become.
Caitlin Gibson of The Washington Post seems to understand this dissonance. She writes, "It all makes for a rather striking dichotomy: Modern babies are born into the most openly gender-nonconforming generation in history, in an era when gender-neutral pronouns have crossed into the mainstream and many prominent activists and celebrities are challenging the gender dichotomy and traditional gender roles. Plenty of parents make a point to avoid clothing, toys or decor that play into stereotypes. No blue trucks, no pink flowers."
But then she continues, "Still, social media feeds are increasingly flooded with photos and videos from 'gender reveal parties,' which transform the announcement of an unborn baby's sex into a full-blown event, complete with cupcakes filled with pink or blue icing, or a box filled with pink or blue balloons, or fireworks, or confetti cannons."
There's that cognitive dissonance again. You may say you are all for the gender revolution, you are all for the idea that there is no gender binary. You may buy into, or say you buy into, gender fluidity, but if you are buying pink or blue confetti or fireworks in order to announce the sex of your unborn child, you really do believe that boy means boy and girl means girl.
The gender revolutionaries are once again wringing their hands over this. A 2017 article in The Journal Pediatrics, we are told, stated, "‘The gender reveal’ has become increasingly elaborate. By celebrating this single ‘fact,’" fact here is put in quotation marks as if male or female is not a fact, "by celebrating this single 'fact' several months before an infant's birth, are we risking committing ourselves and others to a particular vision and a set of stereotypes that are actually potentially harmful?"
Let's simply observe that if the nation's pediatricians are making these kinds of arguments and asking these kinds of questions, we are in very deep trouble indeed.
As public school districts allows students to register with ‘non-binary’ gender option, a major bureaucratic disconnect is exposed
And next, while we're speaking about that trouble, Donna De La Cruz reports for The New York Times that some public schools are now allowing children to register with the gender option besides boy or girl. In the case of some, it means nonbinary.
De La Cruz reports, "A new openness about gender identity is making its way into some of America's public schools. First there were schools establishing all-gender restrooms. Now some districts are allowing children to be officially registered for school as a category other than male or female."
We are told that, "Washington, D.C. schools are the latest with a small change on the public school enrollment form for next year that some members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community regard as a big step forward: The term 'nonbinary,' which refers to people who do not identify exclusively as male or female, will be included as a gender choice."
In this story, there are several points that raise the question as to whether or not bureaucrats simply have a skewed understanding of the way human life actually works. One person cited in this article on behalf of the school board said, "The form change might prompt parents to have conversations with their children about their gender identities, and it would help young people advocate for themselves."
Let me just as this question as straight forwardly as I can imagine it, does the school district in Washington D.C. actually believe that putting in this nonbinary box alongside male or female will prompt parents in the district to sit down with their children and say, "You know, this is really interesting. How would you have me to mark this form? Do you really feel like a boy? Are you really a girl? Or would you rather be listed as nonbinary?" I'll just go out on a limb here and say that I think they're going to be very few parents who are going to be prompted to have any such conversation because of a change made in the registration form of the D.C. public schools.
Why our language always reveals our hearts, and our public language reveals even more
But next, while we're thinking about what kind of culture we are becoming, over the last few days there has been no shortage of political controversies. Some of them will be enduring, some of them amount to flashes in pans. But one of the ones that caught my attention has to do with a newly elected Congresswoman from Michigan who achieved international headlines by using very profane obscene language to refer to the President of the United States as she was calling for his impeachment.
What's most interesting to my mind as we think about the changing worldview of our society are the arguments that came in the aftermath of this controversy. So one of the questions that immediately emerges is whether or not any national leader could get away with using this kind of language? The answer increasingly is yes. This is something that goes back several years in America's political discourse, but we do need to understand what has changed in the United States, even about the use of this kind of language. I'm not going to mention any words in particular, you know exactly what I am talking about.
When the Watergate tapes were released by court order, a unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court, and Richard Nixon had to resign as President of the United States, one of the issues that helped to frame the consciousness about Richard Nixon in the minds of the American people, one of the moral judgments that was made and made very clearly and publicly was that Americans, the vast mainstream of Americans, were horrified to know that the President of the United States had been using that kind of language in the Oval Office.
Now we know in 2018 what almost no one knew in 1974, and that was that Richard Nixon was not the first President to record conversations in the Oval Office. When the conversations of some of his predecessors in office were also released to the public, the reality is it was discovered that many Presidents of the United States had at least at times peppered their arguments or their responses with that kind of language.
But what's important to recognize is that Americans did not know that. Those political leaders, Democrats and Republicans, surely never used that kind of language in public. This was a matter of national controversy when Vice President Dick Cheney used in a comment about a political reporter he made to President George W. Bush. That made international news.
But now you have a newly elected Congresswoman from Michigan, in this case one of the two first women who are Muslims elected to the United States Congress, and she used this kind of language. Now, what's really interesting for us to observe is how many people rushed in to say that any criticism of this particular Congresswoman, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, for using that kind of language was sexist because, the accusation is, there would be a different moral judgment that would have been attached to this female politician than to male politicians.
Well, let's ask the question, is that true? Well, it might be true. It might be true that some men would get away with saying some of these statements in some circles by some analysts, whereas some women might not. But there is another point to be made here, and this is even more important, when Christians understand that our language always reveals our hearts. Our language is always important. Using that kind of language betrays something about the individual. Using it in public in this kind of context reveals a step even further. And that's the point.
Congresswoman Tlaib has been unapologetic in her use of the language. When she has been confronted several times with opportunities to back down and apologize, she has refused. And, as a matter of fact, you can say that she is now using that particular incident as a part of her political personal branding in the social media.
Michelle Goldberg, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, ran a piece with the headline, "Rashida Tlaib said nothing wrong." Later in the article we read these words, "But the reaction to her comment was obscene."
So, there you see an inversion of an entire morality. It's not the statement, it's not the word, it's not the language that's obscene, it's the criticism that is obscene. Now we are becoming a nation in which you might say there is now a divide over this question. Would the people who believe that the language was obscene and the people on the other side arguing that the criticism of the language was obscene.
Those are two moral judgments that stand at stark contradictions. They cannot be harmonized. Either you believe one or the other, you cannot possibly believe both. But we are a nation that has no doubt changed a great deal in the kind of language that is now used in public, that is used by our elected politicians, and in many cases there are equal opportunity violators here on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. But an ominous sign of where we stand in 2019 is that some politicians now see this even as a way to gain advantage by political branding.
There is a deeper question here, of course, that Christians need to understand, and that is that when you're talking about language, when you're talking about this kind of language, one of the questions that emerges is why anyone would use it? And also, in the aftermath of the controversy over Congresswoman Tlaib, there was the suggestion that comes from different kinds of analysts of language, linguists and others, especially those who follow political discourse. They have said that the use of that kind of off-color language, that itself is a euphemism, is a way of making points that gets attention and might even give greater moral weight to an argument.
Now, that's where Christians need to sit up very carefully and listen and understand that if that is so, we are again in very big trouble. If our elected officials believe that they gain advantage with us by using this kind of language, then just imagine where we are headed in this nation's political discourse and headed in a hurry.