briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, June 7, 2019

It’s Friday, June 7, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

New Limitations Placed on Fetal Tissue Research: The Media’s False Juxtapositions

Big news on the biomedical front. Headline story from The Washington Post, “The Trump administration will curtail federal funding for research involving fetal tissue. A victory,” said the Journal, “for conservatives and religious groups that have been pressing the White House since last year to halt all such studies.”

Stephanie Armor reporting for the Journal continued, “The administration’s actions could come close to ending most federal funding for studies with fetal tissue. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health will be barred from doing future research with fetal tissue from abortions, and outside groups that want NIH grants for any new research using fetal tissue will have to get approval under a review process that will include an ethics advisory board.”

Let’s step back and understand what’s going on here. There are very deep unavoidable questions related to biomedical ethics that are involved here, and we also have to recognize that the larger issue is even beyond medical research based upon cells and tissues taken from aborted fetuses. Some of the very same issues pertain to medical research on human embryos—human embryos that would be destroyed by the very nature of the research.

In both cases, Christians operating out of the biblical worldview understand that the sanctity and dignity of human life are here very much at stake. And we’re also looking at one of those ethical divides that separates those who operate from an understanding based on the biblical worldview of the sanctity of human life and those who operate quite clearly from a very different worldview.

The use of tissue from aborted fetuses is not new in medical research. Back during the 1950s and ’60s it came to light that this kind of research was taking place in Europe. Furthermore, there was also the use of tissues from aborted fetuses in Europe in some commercial products. It came to light later that the medical research that was using the tissues from aborted fetuses was also taking place within the United States.

In recent years, it also became clear through widely circulated, now infamous, videos that Planned Parenthood was actively involved in this trade in tissues and cells and organs even from aborted fetuses.

Later in the article in The Wall Street Journal we read this, “The battle over the ethics of using fetal tissue has pitted conservative voters against scientists who say the material can lead to valuable medical discoveries. Research groups say the use of fetal tissue is vital because it has qualities that adult tissue don’t have, while critics say alternatives such as adult stem cells can be used instead.” The next sentence is, “Fetal tissue has long been used in the development of vaccines for rubella and chicken pox, but it’s use has dropped significantly amid the political backlash.”

Now before we even consider the issue, let’s just again look at the media report. For instance, you have in this report an oppositional situation we need to draw into question. The oppositional context is conservative voters versus scientists. Is that really fair? Is it even accurate? Should it be conservative voters versus liberal voters? Should it be some scientists versus other scientists? What you have here is the kind of contextualization that reveals a very deep bias within the media. A bias that in this case is probably not even evident to the writer and the editors of The Wall Street Journal. But there it is, conservative voters versus scientists.

You also have the juxtaposition supposedly here in which you have research scientists who say the use of fetal tissue is vital over against critics who say that alternatives such as adult stem cells can be used instead. What’s the problem here? Well, you have research scientists, or research groups on the one hand, when you have simply critics on the other hand. That’s not a fair description.

The other big argument we need to watch is that reported in the Journal in the next sentences. “Medical experts said the new restrictions would have ramifications in the study of disease.” Arthur Caplan, a medical ethics professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center said, “It will have an impact. There is still research being done on interventions for HIV disease development.”

Now again, just hit pause for a moment and recognize that if there were no impact on research, the policy change would not even be news. It’s only news and it’s only a policy change because there will be ramifications when it comes to the application of the policy.

But this troubling juxtaposition also shows up at the conclusion of The Wall Street Journal’s article, where I read, “Critics said the administration was caving to conservative religious groups at the expense of science.” I’ll just pause there for a moment again. Here you have the juxtaposition, supposedly, conservative religious groups versus science as if science is some kind of monolith. That you can just call 1-800-SCIENCE and talk to science.

The juxtaposition isn’t fair, although it is interesting to note that it is probably true that the overwhelming majority of scientists would disagree with this policy announced by the Trump administration in recent days. Why? Because you have an inordinate number of scientists who actually hold to the worldview of scientism, a worldview that says that progress means more and more research without restrictions because science is the ultimate source of truth and knowledge.

Megan Donovan, Senior Policy Manager at the Guttmacher Institute, is quoted as saying, “Ideologues should not be allowed to stand in for real doctors and scientists when the government is making decisions about life-saving medicine.” Later the article concludes by acknowledging that the Guttmacher Institute is “a policy group that supports abortion rights.”

That’s not incidental, it’s not accidental, it is central to the story. But again, you see the framing of the story as being a conflict between ideologues and real doctors and scientists. Those are the very words that Megan Donovan used, the very words that were quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

There’s something else to note here that has deep worldview significance, and that is the fact that you have here another juxtaposition, another balancing of interests that is presented in the story, and it is between those who care about fetal tissue, and thus fetuses, unborn babies, and those who care about resolving and curing diseases, or preventing those diseases by one means or another. You have this juxtaposition between those who care about unborn babies on the one hand, and those who care about disease on the other hand.

Clearly, that’s a false distinction, but it is a distinction that is central to the energy of the media coverage. Not only in The Wall Street Journal, which arguably is one of the better articles, but throughout the remainder of the mainstream media, the media overwhelming appalled by the idea that there would be any restriction upon science or upon medical experimentation.

But you also have here the basic problem that there is implicit on the other side of this argument no boundary whatsoever that is acknowledged. If it’s not wrong to use tissues taken from fetuses, then what would be wrong? Well, certainly most medical scientists and researchers would say there are boundaries that much be respected. Well, what exactly are those? Well, one of the arguments is you need to let the research scientists come up with their own boundaries, with their own policies. That is actually the overwhelming argument coming from the medical research community. But has that led to an adequate set of policies? Is the scientific community capable of policing itself? The answer to that over and over again is no.

Just consider the fact that on The Briefing a few weeks ago we talked about a Chinese scientist that moved ahead with CRISPR technology of genetic engineering on human babies, experimentation that violated every single code and policy. But it happened anyway. And there were American scientists by the knowledge of that experiment who were complicit in that very boundary breaking. And you can see how the argument goes. The boundary is now broken, so we need a new boundary, until we break that one, and then we need a new boundary. Trust us on this.

But here is where Christians, again, just need to remind ourselves that if it is ethical to take tissue from aborted fetuses and use that tissue in medical experimentation, then ultimately no human life is safe. If it is ethical to take the tissue and the cells from an unborn human infant, then eventually there is a boundary that will be crossed between the born and the unborn.

Part II

Should Christians Benefit from Vaccines That Have Heritage in Fetal Tissue? Understanding the Difference in Primary and Secondary Effect

But here we also need to acknowledge a couple of deep complexities—complexities we actually have the responsibility to confront, especially right now with the background of controversy over vaccines, we need to acknowledge there is a very real question. Can Christians, operating out of a biblical worldview, who would never support medical experimentation with fetal tissues, can those Christians ethically take advantage of vaccines that in their heritage have at least some involvement with fetal tissues or cells?

Trying to think through these issues for centuries now based upon a biblical pattern of reasoning, the Christian church has come to the conclusion that yes, it is ethical, it is warranted for Christians to take advantage of these vaccines, even as we oppose the use of fetal cells and tissues in medical experimentation. This leads us to understand a basic Christian worldview distinction between primary effect and secondary effect. It can also be explained in the distinction between a primary reason and a secondary reason.

The Christian worldview cannot possibly support any argument that we ought to use human fetal cells or tissues in medical experimentation or in vaccines. We cannot accept that argument. But we also have to acknowledge there’s a basic complexity when it comes to almost any major medicine, any kind of vaccine, any kind of major medical treatment. If we knew the entire involvement at every step in the development of this treatment or the development of this drug, we might find any number of complexities. But for Christians, this would not be the primary effect. It certainly would not be the primary reason. Christians could not support anything that has as its primary reason or its primary effect the use and abuse of fetal tissues taken from abortion. That would be illicit at every turn.

But Christian reasoning has also come to conclude that Christians can by secondary effect, with a secondary reason or rationale, use such materials ethically because there is no alternative. That viewpoint also recognizes the fact that in this case we know, in other cases we might not know, but the complexity might be just as deep, the involvement may be just as problematic.

Here is where the announcement coming from the Trump administration is particularly powerful, because in this case the Trump administration is saying, “We are going to make it very, very difficult, if not impossible, in future medical research for fetal cells or fetal tissues to be used when those fetuses are taken from abortion.” But you’ll notice that the administration is not going backwards and destroying all the medical evidence and all of the results of experimentation going backwards in time. That is virtually impossible, and it is not necessary.

Now the vaccine question is broader than this. It’s not simply reducible to cells taken from fetuses. And also, the consciences of Christians may be bound differently and the Scriptures speaks to that, we respect one another in conscience. But the overwhelming majority of Christians trying to operate from a biblical worldview would say at the bottom line that Christians are not obligated not to use vaccines or medical treatments taken even with some kind of complexity in the heritage.

The really important aspect of the news story that comes this week is that this is an entirely appropriate announcement coming from the federal government. Remember, we’re not even talking here about all medical research. We’re talking here about federally funded medical research. There’s something here that’s roughly equivalent to the Hyde Amendment when it comes to abortion. At the very least, the consciences of Christians and others who hold to a pro-life position should not be violated by our tax money going to medical research that would be including the cells and tissues taken from aborted fetuses. At the very least, tax payers should not be coerced into this involvement.

But one final thought on this story, there’s a Marxist category, a category of Marxist analysis that becomes quite important here, and that category is commodification. The Marxists argued that when you look at capitalism, its basic fault is putting a price on everything—everything reduced simply to a price. Now, that turned out to be an issue of false analysis. The reality is, we do not, even in a free market economy, put a price on everything. But that’s because we believe there are certain goods that should not be reducible to utility or price.

But consider what we’re looking at here, this is precisely the commodification of the cells and organs and tissues taken from human babies that were killed in abortion. That’s exactly what it is. Even if there is not a dollar value attributed to the aborted baby, the reality is there is a utilitarian value that is ascribed to it. This unborn human baby, these fetal remains, are useful to medical science. That is commodification. This is reducing the human being simply to utilitarian value. This is nightmarish.

Part III

The Commodification of Human Beings: Now Simply Another Product Line?

But it also leads to our next story, this one from The New York Times, a huge headline story, “Sperm bank mix-ups.” The subhead, “With DNA tests, parents who used artificial insemination are finding that donors weren’t the ones they’d chosen.” Jacqueline Mroz is the reporter in this story. I’m not going to read from it extensively, but the bottom line in the story is that there is an entire new problem on the American scene and it is that when you have the intersection of the reproductive revolution and DNA testing, well it turns out that there are a lot of Americans who didn’t get what they thought they bought. And in this case, what they thought they bought was a specific individual’s sperm. But it turns out, that isn’t what they got.

The story begins with a woman and her female partner who decided they wanted to have children. Thus, they went to a sperm bank and they ordered a particular individual’s sperm. But by different twists and turns in the story, they later discovered that even as they had twin boys, they were not related to others who were also supposedly from the same sperm donor. Which means they actually weren’t from the same donor.

But the DNA testing also brought up some other dimensions. Listen to this part of the story, “As it turned out, the sperm bank had sold her sperm, not from the man she had carefully selected, but from a completely different donor. She discovered the identity of the man whose sperm she was given and learned that his medical history was far from pristine. A grandmother had died of brain cancer at the age of 60, and a grandfather had suffered with Alzheimer’s. Another grandmother had died of heart disease. The mother said, ‘I felt like they tainted the gene pool for my kids.'”

Here’s one dark dimension of the story coming in the very words of the offended mother who didn’t get what she thought she bought, “I didn’t choose someone who has a history of brain cancer in the family. I would never have chosen this donor. They should be ashamed to even have this donor on the website.” Now notice what’s going on here. This is, in commercial terms, the equivalent of someone saying, “I ordered a product, this isn’t the product I ordered. I had a house designed, this isn’t the house I designed. I bought a certain sperm sample, it isn’t the sample I bought.” It is a commercial problem with a commercial complaint.

Here again, we’re looking at the commodification of human cells. We are looking at the fact that these women chose a donor from a catalog, or in this case a website, in which they were choosing the donor by particular traits, and instead they got a different donor with different traits, and this one comes with Alzheimer’s and other health problems. And you have the complaint, “We would not have chosen this donor. It’s a mistake. We want our money back.” And by the way, they want more.

But it turns out that the courts and justice officials aren’t exactly sure what to do with this at all. No surprise there. Sonia Suter, a law professor at George Washington University, said, “There isn’t a legal mechanism here to address what seems to be a clear wrong. The problem is there is very little regulation. There is a potential breach of contract if you say you weren’t given the sperm you wanted, but it may be hard to prove.”

In biblical analysis, the big problem here is that commodification of human beings. There are certain things that are rightly commodified. You can sell turnips, you can sell basketballs, you can sell cars, you can sell houses, you can sell ships and planes and just about anything of material form and there is no problem with commodification. There’s a basic value and in a free market, the exchange is over the value.

But when it comes to human beings and the parts of human beings, there should be no commodification. And especially when you throw into this that there is now in the first story an incentive to abort babies because, after all, there are now parts that we can use. We can commodify and we can sell or trade. Or at least we can use them in the promise of medical research. And here you have the commodification of human reproductive cells. That’s exactly what it is. And human beings are reduced to being donor profiles in a catalog or a website where it is so commodified that you can actually choose, “I want this trait, I want that trait. I want blue eyes. I want athletic ability. I want a high SAT.” That’s the very definition of wrongful commodification.

But Christians understand there’s something else going on here, and it’s the alienation of the goods from the source. What does that mean? It means that Christians understand that goods should be traceable to the appropriate source, which means babies, here’s something from the Christian worldview, are to come from a mother and a father who are together in marriage. That is the biblical vision. The goods come from the appropriate source. When you try to get the same goods from an inappropriate source, there is a huge moral problem. And the further you get from the appropriate source, the worse the problems become.

In this case, just consider you’re talking about a lesbian couple who wanted to have children. They can’t have children without getting some kind of outside intervention, so they went to a website in order to buy sperm. But they didn’t get the sperm they wanted, so what do they do now? Well, you can’t get that genie back in the bottle. And after all, you’re talking about twin boys who are very much alive. Are they now to be told that they are defective or deficient because their mother received the wrong sperm in a vial?

Our society tries to say this is no big deal or it’s now a big deal that we’re going to resolve by some new kind of legal mechanism. But this is really a big deal. Christians understand it by intuition and we had better learn how to articulate it by argument. When you separate the goods from the source, you really create a problem. The further you get from the source, the worse the problem.

We’re a society that right now doesn’t even acknowledge that there should be a link between the goods and the source. We would create babies in laboratories. We will order sperm and eggs by internet. We will abstract sex and reproduction from marriage. We will even redefine marriage. We are destroying the source, and we are then endangering the goods.

Part IV

The Next Dangerous Tool of Oppression? Dodgeball.

But finally, we deal with another major moral issue. We are told that it is so, it must be so because the National Post in Canada reports that it is so. Actually, the National Post is merely reporting that others think it’s so. What’s the deep moral issue? Dodgeball. The headline in the National Post, “Dodgeball isn’t just problematic, it’s an unethical tool of oppression, according to researchers.” Joseph Brean is the reporter in this story.

“Thousands of academics are gathering in Vancouver for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences from June 1-7. They will present papers on everything from child marriage in Canada to why dodgeball is problematic.” Brean continues, “The games children play in school yards are famously horrible if you stop to think about them. Tag, for example, singles out one poor participant, often the slowest child, as they dehumanized ‘It,’ who runs vainly in pursuit of the quicker ones. Capture the flag is nakedly militaristic. British bulldog has obvious jingoistic colonial themes.”

“But,” says Bream, “none rouse the passions of reformed minded educational progressives quite like dodgeball, the team sport in which players throw balls at each other, trying to hit their competitors and banish them to the sidelines of shame.” Brean continues, “When the Canadian Society for the Study of Education meets in Vancouver at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a trio of education theorists will argue that dodgeball is not only problematic, in the modern sense of displaying hierarchies of privilege based on athletic skill, but that it is outright ‘miseducative.'”

The reporter tells us, “Dodgeball is not just unhelpful to the development of kind and gentle children who will become decent citizens of a liberal democracy. It is actually harmful to this process. Dodgeball, say the educators, is a tool of oppression.”

Joy Butler, professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the University of British Columbia said, “As we consider the potential of physical education to empower students by engaging them in critical and democratic practices, we conclude that the hidden curriculum offered by dodgeball is antithetical to this project, even when it reflects the choices of the strongest and most agile students.”

Now let me interject here that I found dodgeball to be the most fun in physical education of my entire school experience. First of all, given my eyesight, finally we were playing with a ball I could see. And furthermore, it seemed to be the perfect way to channel all kinds of energies in a game that just went on over and over again. It started and restarted. Kids were sent to the sidelines and then they got back in the game again. And furthermore, there was energy involved that only children can well understand. Energy that looks very threatening to adults. But these adults, I think, would be threatened by about just about anything.

You also see how everything is now ideological, including all games. But when you consider the accusations made against dodgeball, that it isn’t good for creating democratic citizens for a liberal democracy, it does not, as other physical education activities, we are told, engage children in critical and democratic practices. Instead we are told that it is profoundly wrong, that it is miseducative, and that it sets loose all kinds of wrongful passions, including human competitiveness. But let’s just consider for a moment, what in the world are games in the first place?

The abstract of the academic paper says that dodgeball “reinforces the five faces of oppression, as defined by the late Iris Marion Young, a social and political theorist at the University of Chicago.” What are the five faces of oppression? They are marginalization, powerlessness, helplessness of those perceived as weaker, the exercise of violence, and dominance by those who are considered more powerful. In other words, competitive physical sports.

Everything is now in the new physical education, as its been called, everything is now ideology. The purpose of physical education is to unmask oppression. Winning and losing basically become a part of the past. It’s all oppression and liberation now.

But you’ll notice this is an argument taking place at a meeting of professors and scholars of the humanities at an academic conference in Vancouver. You’ll notice that the vast majority of human beings are interested in actual competitive sport. And in this case, having talent is not redefined ideologically as privilege.

Whether you love dodgeball, you hate dodgeball, or you’ve never played dodgeball, the bottom line is you have to be troubled by a society that believes that everything, yes, everything especially having to do with education and children, it is now a matter of sheer ideology.

The losers here are not only children, but all of us. The great loss is moral sanity, even common sense.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

Oh, and you’re It.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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