The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

It’s Tuesday, April 20, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Huge Moral Questions Raised by a Heartbreaking Story about IVF Technology: Recognizing the Moral Significance of Every Single Human Embryo

It is often difficult for some people, frankly, impossible to remember how recent some technological developments are. That’s the way the world works. Once a new technology enters the world stage, the reality is that the people who were young enough to remember the time before that technology are often replaced by and exceeded by the people who can’t imagine that there was a world before this new technology. Now, it’s one thing if you’re talking about the steam locomotive, another thing, if you’re talking about the splitting of the atom, something else, if you’re talking about the development of the modern automobile, something else entirely, when you’re talking about modern reproductive technologies, including what is often packaged under the summary letters IVF. That originally meant in vitro fertilization. “In vitro” means in glass.

And yes, it was in a test tube originally that the first human embryos were created. That’s an interesting word to use. It only makes sense if you buy into the technological dream. But you had the development of human embryos inside of test tubes, glass test tubes, in vitro, thus in vitro fertilization. But IVF nowadays doesn’t have to have anything to do with glass. It doesn’t actually have anything necessarily to do a test tubes. And we do not talk about the babies and children who come by IVF technology. We don’t talk about them any longer as test tube babies, but we really are talking about one generation. But we’re also talking about some very urgent moral issues. On The Briefing just a matter of days ago, we discussed an article that had to do with the fact that one of the current controversies in divorce law and conflict in divorce courts has to do with custody of human embryos that are left over, not yet implanted in a womb when it comes to the breakup of a marriage. Who owns the embryos?

As the headline in the New York Times of April 4th said: “Latest Issue in Divorces: Who Gets the Embryos?” When discussing that issue on The Briefing, I made very clear that this is not only a recent issue. It couldn’t have existed and wouldn’t even have been imaginable just a matter of decades ago. It is now an unavoidable issue because one of the issues of technology is every technology brings its own huge and essential moral questions. I talked about the fact that when we are looking at the test tube babies, as they were originally called, as we’re now looking at the embryos that are developed, they’re not created, they are developed in the supervision of some kind of reproductive technology. They are human beings in embryonic state. They are human beings made in the image of God, but the human dignity, the sanctity of life of embryos is now routinely dismissed. These technologies now call for in so many cases, the creation of multiple embryos. And in so many of those cases, there actually is no intention ever to transfer all of those fertilized eggs, all of those embryos into a potential mother. There’s not even the intention. We’re looking at the fact that it was estimated, according to that report, that between one million and 1.3 million “excess human embryos” are now in storage, potentially just eventually to be destroyed or to decay out of the development of IVF technology.

But now we’re onto something else. And it comes in the very same newspapers as the New York Times. But in this case the article was datelined April 18th and the article was by Katherine Rosman. The headline in this case, “The Lost Embryos.” The subhead, “Many years after infertility treatments, a couple made a discovery that led to a lawsuit.” Well, in this case, it’s a married couple. The woman is Elaine Meyer, the man is Barry Prizant and the fact is that they had sought IVF reproductive technology in order to have a child. They sought that technology at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island.

They sought it years ago, and eventually they were able to have one child, a boy who is now grown. As Katherine Rosman explains, “After three miscarriages, they had gone through several rounds of in vitro fertilization at Women’s & Infants in Providence, Rhode Island, near their home in Cranston. Resulting in the creation of at least 18 test tube embryos.” There you see the test tube language coming back, at least 18 test tube embryos. But of course they’re not embryos of a test tube, they are human embryos. The article goes on, “One of those have become their son, Noah born in December 1996. And along with joy, there’ve been a lot of mourning and reckoning with the reality that this would be the sole realization of their efforts.” Why was their heartbreak? It is because they later attempted the transfer of other embryos. They were unsuccessful and they were told that there were no more viable embryos from the ones that they had created years ago by the IVF technology.

The cause of this article is the fact that in July of 2017, Elaine Meyer had opened an envelope that she thought was merely a fundraising solicitation from the hospital. But what it was instead was a bill for $500 for the continued preservation of their human embryos. The very embryos that they had been told years ago no longer existed. Now they’re not only being told that they existed, but that they are being sent a bill. Further investigation revealed that the embryos were themselves decayed because of a technological error that involved breaking the vial that had held those embryos at some point in the past. That is to say, these are not now viable human embryos. The heartbreak and the outrage was multiple here as you might understand and because these are issues being litigated when you look at a case like this, you’re looking at the claims of one side. But what is undeniable is that there were embryos that this couple was told, did not exist.

That actually did exist, that were largely destroyed, or at least made unviable by a mistake. And furthermore, adding insult to injury, they were being sent a bill for $500 for the continued preservation of these embryos that the hospital had said did not exist and in reality did exist, but had been largely destroyed. But this is where Christians operating from a biblical worldview understand that there are multiple issues here and that they are layered one upon another. First of all, you have the apparent injury to these embryos that rendered them non-viable. Then you have the fact that you have these embryos that this couple wanted to transfer in order to have more children. They were told that no viable embryos then existed. It turns out that they did, that is, did exist, but then it turned out that they did not stay viable for long because of some kind of mishap in the hospital system.

Then you have the added insult to the fact that the couples being sent a bill to preserve, continued preservation of embryos that are not viable. And that they had been told did not exist. But Christians have to go deeper in the stack of these issues. There are more basic and fundamental issues. First of all, the issue of the image of God, the issue of human dignity. You might think reading this article, at least in the beginning of the article that the central moral issue here is the grief and disappointment of these parents. This couple who had the joy of having one child, but had the heartbreak of not being able to have more children, they were misled. And it might have been that they could have had more children back then, had the issue have been handled rightly. And make no mistake the article makes clear the sympathy for this couple.

It’s a rightful sympathy in this sense, you understand their heartbreak. And furthermore, you understand the compounding of that heartbreak when they find out the reality of what had happened to those embryos long after there was any possibility of transferring those embryos that might lead to a pregnancy, that might lead to a baby. The article makes clear just how grueling that IVF technology process was for this couple. But on the third cycle, they were able to conceive and the wife became pregnant with Noah, “After his birth, she and her husband were optimistic they could have another child. There were nine embryos left from the three cycles and they signed agreements with the hospital to cryopreserve them for transfer in the future. We are then told that Dr. Meyer felt an acute attachment to the embryos calling each a spark of life.”

She would drive, we’re told, out of her way to pass by the hospital, “stopping in the parking lot, to sing lullabies to them while in her car.” She said, “We were always coming back for our embryos. That was always the plan.” Now let me just say something about the Christian use of IVF technology. The moral risk in using that technology goes down with the absolute determination to transfer all of those embryos into the mother’s womb. The transfer of all of those embryos, giving all and each of those embryos and opportunity for life greatly lowers the moral risk. Here’s one of the heartbreaks of reading this article. This couple wanted to lower that moral risk, they wanted the joy of having another child or children from those embryos. But that was denied them. Looking back at that heartbreak years ago, the wife said that she and her husband had decided, “To look at having just one child as an opportunity to have more resources, to serve many more children through our work.” But then came the letters, the letters that actually told them of the existence of these embryos that had been denied.

And the letter that was telling them they were going to have to pay money in order to continue the cryopreservation of those embryos. The couple thought it was a mistake and protested to the hospital that was a mistake. And then they found out it wasn’t actually a mistake, it was a far deeper tragedy than that.

Part II

The Wild, Wild West of Reproductive Technology: Why Is American Society So Unconcerned about the Wanton Destruction of Human Embryos?

But there’s a crucial turn in this article and it is extremely important. It’s also to be honest, surprising given the context of this article and given the fact that the moral status of embryos is routinely ignored. If not denied, it is at least routinely ignored in our society as is the moral status of an unborn child in so many cases. That’s the entire empire of abortion. But there’s a doctor that is cited in this article. That’s Dr. David Keefe.

At the time of this couple was seeking treatment, he was the director of the hospital’s division of reproductive medicine. But he says that he had no knowledge of the fact that there were embryos that still existed at the time the couple wanted to use them. He said, “Yikes, I feel so terribly for this couple.” The New York times then tells us this, “He said he would have known that embryos were missing only if someone from the lab had notified him, and in this case they had not. In the rare instances when embryos are lost or misplaced, he added the protocol is to notify the patient immediately apologize and explain what might have happened.” The doctor said in his own words, “Transparency is the foundation of trust and the essential element of the doctor, patient relationship.” Thus far here’s what we note: no real attention to the embryos, attention rather to the parents and to the tragedy they experienced.

But what about those embryos? Here’s where the article takes an absolutely shocking turn. The doctor quoted here who had been the director of the reproductive medical department at the hospital speaking of these embryos said the most remarkable thing. “These are not two cans of peaches on the shelf at Stop & Shop,” he said. “They are much more like two kids on a playground when you’re responsible for them and they’re lost you notify the people who care about them the most and tell them all you can.” Now that’s a statement that is simultaneously morally moving and morally disturbing. The good thing about that statement is that it is a direct reflection of, a direct affirmation of the fact that when you’re talking about human embryos, you are not talking about cans of peaches on the shelf, you’re talking about human beings. But when you look at the further statement the doctor made, he went on to describe them more like, “Two kids on a playground.” That’s a morally significant argument.

It’s a very moving argument. You can picture two cans of peaches on a shelf. You can picture two children playing on a playground. You’re not talking about morally commensurate goods there. You are not talking about a can of peaches and a child being of the same kind. You’re talking about a child made in the image of God and you’re talking about a can of peaches that is at the end of the day, only a can of peaches. If you destroy a can of peaches, no one’s going to file criminal charges. If you destroy a child on the playground, you will be charged with a crime. That’s the problem with that statement, if it is indeed that these embryos are like children playing on a playground, not like cans of peaches on a shelf, then it is inadequate after that to say, “When you’re responsible for them and their loss, do you notify that people who care about the most and tell them all you can.”

Imagine using his own metaphor and saying that if you have children missing from a playground, you simply care enough to call the people who care enough about them and tell them the most that you can. Now I’m not really criticizing the doctor because in making this comment, he might not have meant to make a comprehensive moral argument. But the statement is still extremely significant and moral terms. But it’s also important to recognize that this article is a frank admission of the fact that human embryos are not cans of peaches on a shelf, but here’s where we need to note something. We are living in a country that has so little legal restriction and legal regulation on advanced human reproductive technologies. We’re often described as the wild, wild west of reproductive medicine, not only in north America, but on the entire globe.

The reality is that we do not act as a country as if the embryo is morally significant at all. Remember this mom grieving the loss of these embryos, spoke of the fact that when she believed the embryos were in the hospital, she would sometimes drive into the parking lot and sing lullabies to them. You don’t sing lullabies as she well knows to cans of peaches. The article cites Dr. Jeffrey Khan, the director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University. He doesn’t know the couple, he’s not involved in their case, but he said, “There is so little regulation and no accounting of how many embryos there are in storage.” The Times then tells us that the fertility industry “is a lucrative business, but operates largely unchecked by regulators.” Dr. Khan said, that’s true for several reasons, “Including federal policies place since the mid 1980s.” We are then told by this doctor, “You assume there is oversight as there is with most doctors and procedures, but when it comes to infertility, it turns out not to be true.”

The wife in this couple later told Good Morning America in 2019, about the loss of these embryos: “I felt like I was now grieving a child, I didn’t even know existed. A child I could have had.” The article concludes with these words, “After seeking spiritual support and guidance at their temple in their Quaker meeting, they [meaning the couple] are leaning towards repossessing their embryos and burying them in the backyard in Cranston where the ashes of Dr Meyer’s mother and the remains of the family dog are buried. They also have talked to a rabbi about a cemetery burial.” Dr. Meyer said, “We need to allow our embryos to finally have some peace and rest and we need to find some peace and rest ourselves.” Well, my issue is this. We are a society that is largely, apparently at peace and rest with the want and destruction of human embryos without much moral concern. But on behalf of the dignity and sanctity of human life, every single human life at every stage of development, it’s actually a good thing that the New York Times would give this much attention to this kind of case.

Because even though the New York Times is not writing from a Christian perspective, it is certainly not writing from a pro-life perspective. The fact that it deals with these issues so candidly, in this case and speak so candidly of the fact that children on a playground are more like human embryos than human embryos are like cans of peaches on a shelf. That’s actually a very good thing. And it’s sometimes just a demonstration of common grace that truth breaks through in an article that doesn’t even intend to affirm the sanctity of human life. This article profoundly is not important, the grief of this couple is not important if the sanctity of human life is not real. But their grief is real because human dignity is real, even human dignity at the invisible stage of human development.

Part III

A Custody Battle Over a Dog? A Turtle? An Iguana? Welcome to Divorce in the 21st Century — Confusing the Categorical Distinctions Between Humans and Animals

But next we’re going to shift to an entirely different story. And this one also has to do with a moral issue. This is not of equal stature with the moral status of human embryos. But it does have a link to our discussion about the fact that divorce is now becoming more complex because of the question of the custody of human embryos, but the moral confusion of our age, the confusion of categories also shows up in the complexities of modern divorce when it comes to custody of the pet. Elaine Povich writing for The Pew Charitable Trust in a major report tells us that custody of pets has now become a major issue in the United States. And the article begins with talking about a couple that has divorced. At issue is a pit bull terrier mix named Sweet Pea. We are told that both the wife and the husband, or in this case in divorce. The former wife and the former husband wanted custody of the dog.

And eventually a court had to make a decision in this 2015 case. The judge finally gave the former wife the custody of Sweet Pea. The husband we are told was as a result of this decision inconsolable. “It’s that kind of messy pet custody case that a new California law is supposed to help solve. Former Democratic governor Jerry Brown owner of two, first dogs, corgi mix Lucy and bore boodle–I have no idea what a bore boodle is–Kelly, signed the bill, which took effect January the first of 2020. “It outlines criteria judges can use to determine what’s best for the dog.” Makes you long for the good old bad days, when the major issue in divorce was the custody of the day children. But now there are fewer children. There are fewer custody cases that deal with children. There are more custody cases than at any point in history when it comes to the custody of the dog.

The article tells us, “While pets are not considered children and are technically property, the California law, recognizing what it calls pet’s unique nature sets up special assessments the judges can use to determine custody in contested cases.” Here’s another category distinction. We are told that pets and specifically dogs in this case, pets are not considered according to California law, children and they are technically property, but they are a unique kind of property. Now, one of the category confusions of our day is the category that separates human beings made in God’s image from all other creatures. That doesn’t mean that all other creatures are equal with all other creatures in terms of our relationship to them. But it does mean that the most important category is the category of human as compared to the category of non-human animals.

That is the crucial distinction. To confuse that category set is to bring on grave injury to human dignity. By the way, one of the central evidences of the presence of a Christian worldview is that the right distinctions, the right categorical distinctions are made for the right reasons. That’s consistent with Scripture. That’s the very essence of a Christian worldview. A confusion of those categories is the demonstration of a loss of a Christian worldview or the absence of a Christian worldview. Continuing through the Pew report it turns out that in 2014, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, by the way, matrimonial means marriage is the American Academy Of Matrimonial Lawyers. But that is a set of lawyers that have more to do actually with divorce than marriage. But that’s another story. We are told that there’ve been a 22% increase in pet custody hearings in the proceeding five years.

That would be from 2009 to 2014. We’re then told, “Dogs were the most disputed family animal with 88% of the cases. Cats were a distant second at 5%.” Wait, just a minute. The attachment here turns out not quite to be the same. It turns out that there are custody conflicts over dogs that represent 88% of all the animal cases. Cats a distant second at 5%. Horses made up 1%. The category of other registered 6%. And I kid you not, “Including an iguana, Python, African gray parrot, and even a 130 pound turtle.” A custody battle over in iguana or a turtle. Welcome to America in the 21st century. Democratic Rhode Island representative, Charlene Lima, author of a bill in Rhode Island to change divorce laws to account for pet custody we’re told, said this, “Do we want to treat them like humans? No, but we don’t want the pet considered like the couch either.”

Very interesting statement. Category distinction. Is she wrong? Is she wrong to say, we don’t want to treat them like humans? No, she’s right. That’s a very important category distinction. Is she right that we don’t want to consider pets just like a couch. Actually, she is right about that too. It’s not that pets aren’t really property. They are genuinely property. There’s actually no way around it. Just consider the cattle are property. If you own a herd of cattle, you certainly consider them property. You don’t consider them a herd of couches either. If someone steals one of your cattle, they are a cattle rustler. If you have horses and someone steals one of your horses, they are a horse thief. And there’s a property damage that is involved. It’s a crime to rustle cattle or to steal horses. It was in the wild, wild west. And it remains so today.

The big category is the distinction between human beings and the animals, but even amongst animals, there’s another distinction. And that is a distinction when it comes to sentience, or you might say consciousness. You don’t think of say a single cell organism the way you would think of a Labrador retriever. Actually not even close. Furthermore, human beings, even in a fallen world, even in a world in which we have animals, some of which will attack us. Some of which will eat us. Some of which will bite us and inject us with venom. The reality is that some of them just want to be with us. Clearly, obsessively just want to be with us. They come up to us or they’re wagging tails. They come up to us with their eager faces, their wet noses. And yeah, sometimes they’re wet tongues. Dogs are not made in the image of God.

They do not have a relationship with God. They do not consciously worship God. They do reflect God’s glory because they’re a part of his creation and he shows his glory in them. But that’s not to say the dogs don’t worship. They do sort of worship. They worship you. That’s why human beings love dogs. It’s because dogs love us. But the most important thing about this article is the fact that it reveals some basic confusions in our day. Yes, the confusion of marriage that leads to epidemic rates of divorce. Yes, the reality of the fact that people are now not so much having babies in some cases, but having fur babies and confusing the category in a way that should be absolutely humiliating to humanity. And we’re looking at the fact that in the spike of pet ownership and COVID-19, there are a lot of people who are expecting, there will be more divorces that will come with more custody fights over the animals. The pets in this case, rather than having to do with children. You can count on the fact that there’ll be plenty of tragedy when it comes to children as well.

Mensah M. Deen writing for the Pennsylvania Inquirer quotes Andrew Allston of the Metca law firms saying, It’s a tricky issue because the law has not caught up with the growing regard of pets as being a kin to family members. It’s almost barbaric to think of pets is nothing more than property.” Well, just try to take that logic very far. It’s a very strange and frankly, troubling commentary on our age that so many of these category confusions rise so quickly to the surface in the context of a crisis, like a pandemic, they seem to arise even faster and sometimes float even higher on the cultural agenda. But one of the primary Christian responsibilities is to keep the categories straight.

Part IV

Former Vice President and Minnesota Senator, Walter F. Mondale, Dies at 93: Remembering a Bygone Era of American Politics

Finally, word came yesterday, the death of former Senator and former vice-president Walter F. Mondale. He served representing the state of Minnesota in the United States Senate from 1964 to 1976. When then former governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia chose Walter Mondale as his running mate in the 1976 presidential election.

Walter Mondale was one of the last of the big Midwestern liberals in the classic 20th-century mold. A protege of Minnesota, Senator Hubert Humphrey, another favorite son in Minnesota, who also went on to be a Democratic vice president and Hubert Humphrey’s case in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. And both Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey favored sons of Minnesota who became senators and then vice-presidents gained the Democratic presidential nomination. For Hubert Humphrey it was in 1968. For Walter Mondale it was in 1984. Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, having George H. W. Bush as his running mate in 1980. And having been Jimmy Carter’s vice-president from 1977 until 1981, Walter Mondale was in a position to gain advantage in the 1984 democratic race for the presidential nomination. He eventually won that nomination and he made history by appointing the first woman in that case, New York Congressman Geraldine Ferraro as a major party’s vice presidential nominee. Walter Mondale was at least by reputation, a very friendly politician.

He seemed to have a common touch and he seemed to have a very good sense of humor. But a sense of humor wasn’t good enough. Actually his most famous political moment may come down to the debate he had in the 1984 presidential race. He was debating the then incumbent president, Ronald Reagan, running for re-election and thus he had the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan versus Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale. And Mondale was considerably younger than Ronald Reagan. Reagan was aware of the fact as was his campaign that Walter Mondale was likely to try to make an issue of Reagan’s age. At that point, he was the oldest man ever elected president of the United States. Mondale and his campaign were trying to interject at least some suspicion that Ronald Reagan was too old to be president. When the question came from a press member of the panel asking questions, the question was addressed to Ronald Reagan about his age.

He immediately quipped, his response became one of the most famous responses in the history of presidential debates. He said that he would not allow his challengers relative youth and inexperience to become an issue in the campaign. The entire audience laughed. Millions of Americans hearing the statement laughed. Ronald Reagan had completely diffused the situation and the question about age. And Walter Mondale still in the camera frame with Ronald Reagan at that moment, understood basically that everything was lost. And you can see it on his face because he too, involuntarily burst into laughter. It was one of those genuinely gracious and genuinely humane moments in American politics that came down to a battle of wills and a battle of candidates, a battle of parties that at one quintessential moment in American politics came down to a sense of humor and both candidates had one.

Those were the good old days. Conservatives in America will be very glad that Walter Mondale was not elected president of the United States. A classical old school democratic politician, but at the same time, he represented something that is now missing in American politics. And at least one of the things that is missing is the humanity of touch that was so characteristic of that race and came out in that great moment in 1984.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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