Tuesday, September 13, 2022
It's Tuesday, September 13, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Is Belief in the Humanity of the Fetus Just “Medieval Superstition?” We Must Confront the Denial of Fetal Personhood and Recognize the Fervor to Deny Personhood as a Denial of All Human Dignity
In the confusion around us, Christians need to see some issues very clearly, issues that emerge simply because arguments, all of a sudden, seem to break out into public conversation, arguments that demand our attention. Here's one. Margaret Wertheim, writing for the Los Angeles Times, offers an article and just notice the headline, "Fetal personhood has a whiff of medieval theology."
Now, wait just a minute. You understand immediately what's going on here. For one thing, how often do you see a headline with the word theology in it in the secular age, but you know exactly what's behind this. You don't even have to look at the article yet. Trust me, we will. All you have to do is see the headline to know that the use of the phrase medieval theology along with fetal personhood is to say, "This is nothing more than antiquarian, oppressive, some kind of presupposition and superstition."
Margaret Wertheim indicates that in the aftermath of the abortion decision, just a matter of this past June by the Supreme Court, there are issues that are simply going to have to be faced, and one of them is the moral status of the unborn child and Wertheim writes, "Is a pregnant body one person or two? If you believe the anti-abortion movement, the answer is clear, a pregnant body is two distinct persons and one of those persons, the woman, does not have the right to take away the 'life"' and the word 'life,' by the way, is put in quotation marks, "of the other." So even the word life here related to the inhabitant of the womb is treated as if it's a literary device. She then goes on and says, "But this argument rests on a presupposition about what constitutes a person."
Now let me just stop for a moment. When you see a sentence like that, you just need to sit back for a moment and recognize every single position on abortion, every single position upon human life, every single understanding of what it means to be human involves some kind of presumption about what constitutes a person. It's not like you have a superstitious, Christian, biblical, pro-life position over here and then the standard, obvious, rational position over there. Both positions, regardless of how you construe them, operate on the basis of presuppositions or presumptions, to use her word, about what constitutes a human being or, in this case, a person. She then asks, "Is a tiny clump of cells a distinct human being and what do we even mean by distinct human being?"
Sometimes you look at a question and you just have to wonder how did an editor of a major national newspaper let that through? Asking the question as if it's an irrelevancy. What do we even mean by a distinct human being? Well, in general, what we mean are two different human beings, two different persons, both of them recognized to be, as Christians would understand, made in the image of God. Both of them thus possessing dignity, both of them absolutely important in moral terms.
She goes on to say, "In modern Western philosophy, especially since Descartes, a person is conceived of as an entity with independent intellectual agency." Now, again, let's just wait for a minute. Let's just notice she says, "modern Western philosophy." Well, that tells you something right there. The most important word there is modern. Modern meaning and implying here what came after what, thankfully, we're not stuck in anymore, which was whatever human beings believed before the modern age.
Descartes is cited here, of course, the famous French philosopher who did indeed say, "I think, therefore, I am. Cogito, ergo sum," you may remember from your Latin. We're then told, "Descartes, a Catholic, was putting into secular terms a way of categorizing that he'd adapted from the church, which has traditionally held that human beingness is predicated on an individual self with free will and thus the capacity to distinguish right from wrong."
Now the reference here is to Catholicism and, in particular, to medieval Catholicism. But let me operate here as an historical theologian and just say that's not right. It's not entirely wrong because that same theology would have underlined the fact that the full experience of being a human being does include the experience of the agency and the will.
But nonetheless, the Catholic church and the larger Christian tradition have taught throughout centuries that human life is sacred and worthy of dignity and worthy of respect, going all the way back to when it is first detected. It is not the case that, for example, that Catholic theology in the medieval world would've said that someone who lacks mental capacity because of some kind of, say, genetic disorder or some kind of accident, thus is not a human being. No. Instead, what you have here is a misrepresentation even of medieval Catholic theology. But just to make an obvious point, there aren't that many medieval Catholics to show up and complain to the editors of the Los Angeles Times. They're a dying breed.
Wertheim gets on to her point when she says this, "Let's get back to the fetus. A small bunch of cells clearly doesn't have free will." Okay, stop just a minute. Let's just take her at her own words here. She began by talking about a small bunch of cells, but then she ends up talking about the fetus and after all, it is declared to be a fetus all the way until the moment of birth, not just anything rightly described as a small bunch of cells. She says that it doesn't have free will, but that, of course, is quite a presumption. Even if that were the issue, and it's not, even if that were the issue, how is she going to somehow plausibly argue that a minute before birth that baby does not have such capacity and just by escaping from the birth canal, all of a sudden, it does have that capacity? That's nonsense.
But given her own insistence here that the experience of free will is what is required for one to be a person, then you'll notice the greatest danger here is to someone too young to exercise that agency, and that includes babies that are very much born, which is to say it's a fiction to argue that a baby just born from the womb is, all of a sudden, exercising a great deal of will. There's a reason why you don't discipline an hour's old baby. There's a reason why you do understand that baby is made in the image of God, that that baby is a human being, a human person.
But you also know that it has been a human person long before it was born and, in this case, the only biblical place to go is all the way back to the moment of conception. By that, we mean actual moment of conception, which means the moment of fertilization when the sperm and the egg come together and God has said, "Let there be life."
She goes back to medieval Catholic debates and then she fast forwards and says, "Today, these questions sound absurd, but in anti-abortion arguments we're witnessing the reemergence of a similar fanatical desire to draw irrevocable distinctions around personhood and bodies."
Now at this point, I just have to wonder if there's any moral sanity left in the world, and certainly I have to wonder if there's any moral sanity left at the Los Angeles Times. Every society draws irrevocable distinctions around personhood and bodies. Every system of law, no matter where it's found. Wherever on the planet and throughout time, if you find a government with laws, it is making distinctions around personhood and bodies. Secular people make those distinctions, Buddhists make those distinctions. Christians make those distinctions. There is no way you can avoid making those distinctions, but here, this author acts like making those distinctions just turns you into a medieval Catholic and a pro-life fanatic.
But you'll notice that what she doesn't say is that personhood begins at X or Y. She's simply saying that those who argue for fetal personhood are fanatics. They're following a fanatical desire to draw irrevocable distinctions around personhood and bodies. She then says this, "We might all agree that at some point the fetus becomes an independent being, but when does this differentiation occur?" She says, "Certainly not at conception."
Well, how does she know certainly not? And by the way, she just contradicted herself when, all of a sudden, she says, "We might all agree that at some point the fetus becomes an independent being." Well, given her own definition, when exactly is that fetus exercising free will?
Let me just point out something obvious here. The baby does not decide, all of a sudden, to be born and then somehow escaped the womb. Rather, the baby, by no exercise of the baby's will, is born out of the womb by the very power of the process that the creator has put in place.
I won't give further attention to this article. I'll simply say it is a perfect example of the kind of moral atrocity that is now being presented to the American people. The argument that the desire to come to terms with the personhood of the unborn child is just a fanatical desire brought about by people who knowingly are not or driven by a medieval Catholic theology. Let me just say, as an American evangelical in 2022, this is not medieval Catholicism. This is biblical Christianity.
Medieval Catholicism may have given itself to speculation about many matters. Well, we don't have to speculate. We just say this is the only Christian conclusion. How that's applied in concrete situations becomes a matter of all kinds of Christian thinking throughout the ages. But the one thing we must recognize is that we have no right to begin our understanding of the human person or human personhood, other than at the moment that God says, "Let there be life."
Now, we don't get to see that moment, but we know that moment happens and once we know that life is there, that life is to be protected, respected, and it is to be defended.
‘For You Formed My Inward Parts; You Knitted Me Together in My Mother's Womb.’: The Most Conclusive Refutation of the Culture of Death Comes from the Word of God
Now next, another reason now I'll draw attention to this issue is that similar arguments appeared on opposite coast in the United States, basically on the very same day. On Sunday, the Miami Herald ran an opinion piece that's not by an op-ed writer, but is rather an editorial statement. This is a statement by the editorial board of the Miami Herald. The headline, "Is a Fetus a Person?" Then the subhead, "A fringe idea could be the next post-Roe v. Wade chapter." So you'll notice a similar argument, two different coasts, two different coastal cities, Los Angeles on the West Coast, Miami on the East Coast. They're both running major articles, this time by the paper's editorial board, suggesting that the idea that a human fetus is a person is a fringe idea.
Well, as I speak to you right now, I'm in Miami and evidently the editorial board of this paper would make, in Miami, the human womb to be an altogether more unsafe place. They go on to say that we could be looking at a dystopian scenario. "What could happen if anti-abortion zealots take their positions to an extreme" and then the newspapers' board warns, "and it's not out of the realm of possibility."
They then write this and this is supposed to make perfect sense. "Abortion rights groups fear the next frontier in the fight to take away reproductive rights." Notice the kind of language here, not the fight to defend unborn life, but rather by their position, the fight to take away reproductive rights. They say the next step, the next fight "is to grant fetuses 'personhood'"--personhood is put in quotation marks here--"'personhood' status. Anti-abortion groups such as Americans United for Life," they write, "are pushing for a federal executive order that would recognize pre-born persons as constitutional persons entitled to equal protection under the U.S. Constitution."
Now, let me just point out something that should be politically obvious. The current president of the United States has turned himself into a pro-abortion fanatic. That would be Joe Biden, the Democratic incumbent. There is no risk of the current White House issuing any kind of executive order which would limit abortion in any way, much less define and demand legal recognition of the personhood of an unborn baby. We could hope and pray for that, but there is absolutely no danger of such an action from this administration. So this is just politics, this is just opportunism.
But the editors go on to write that the bigger issue might be of human life protection amendment, which is proposed in Florida and there are those who are trying to get it here in Florida on the ballot in 2024. We are told, "the proposed amendment to the state constitution would create a "God-given right to the life of the pre-born individual." We're told that it's on its way as a petition to getting enough signatures to put it on the ballot. If indeed it makes the ballot in 2024, 60% of voters would have to approve it in order to reach final passage.
Now, remember, the editors of the Miami Herald have been declaring this is an emergency. There are zealots and their actions might not be outside the realm of possibility. They then talk about this proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution and then they themselves write this sentence. "It's a long shot this will ever happen," which means they're simply posturing in moral terms by writing this editorial. Thanks, editors, for letting us in on that little secret. But thank you also for telling us how you actually think because, chillingly, it's important that we know so.
But then the editors go on to try to describe the position that they reject. They write, "The rationale goes that if life begins at conception, then ending a pregnancy is no different than murder." They then say, "this might seem like a fringe belief to most Americans, but they then say until just a few months ago, banning abortions with no exception for rape and incest was also a fringe idea. Yet here we are."
The editors of the Miami Herald go on and lay out their dystopian scenario and they concede, according to a group known as the National Advocates for Pregnant Women and, by the way, that appears to be a very pro-abortion organization, they say that at least 11 states have what they describe as "extremely broad fetal personhood language on the books." But then interestingly enough, the editors of the Miami Herald understand at least a part of the extension of the logic of fetal personhood when they say, "You know, this just might be problematic for IVF technology, for reproductive technology that would," and they don't go into this detail, but this is what they mean, "create human embryos only later to destroy them."
As we think about the clash of worldviews here in the United States over issues just as basic as human personhood, let's just consider the fact that the appearance of these two editorial statements, one in Miami, Florida, one in Los Angeles, California, basically within hours of each other and both of them trying to argue that the belief in the personhood of the unborn as something fantastical, fringe, radical and dangerous, just recognize where we are in this world if indeed unborn human life is defined in any other terms.
Just a matter of days ago, I preached a sermon in Southern Seminary/Boyce College Chapel on the sanctity of human life. It was my first opportunity to address the issue after the Dobbs decision was handed down this past June that was after graduation for both schools. I turned to Psalm 139, a Psalm of David, and you'll recall the beautiful language there in which David gave testimony to the fact that he was known by his creator before he was known to anyone else and certainly before he knew himself.
Again, Psalm 139, beginning in verse nine, David writes, "If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there, your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, 'Surely, the darkness shall cover me and the light about me be night,' even the darkness is not dark to you, the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you."
Now here, David is referring to the fact that God knows him, sees him all the time without break, without hesitation, without obstacle. God, the creator, knew him before he knew himself, before anyone else knew him. His identity is secured in God's creative purpose and in God's sovereignty.
Then these words beginning in verse 13 of Psalm 139, "For you formed my inward parts. You knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works. My soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance, in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me when as yet there were none of them."
Now, if you don't know anything else, if you didn't know anything else, if you never learned anything else, other than the fact that Psalm 139 is the inherent infallible word of God, then you would know that God created David, not just by saying, "Let there be life," in Genesis 1, but by saying, "Let there be life and let that life be David in David's mother's womb."
And before David's mother knew him, before he knew himself, before anyone else knew him, God knew him as from the earliest moments of human development, he was being knitted together in his mother's womb. He was known to God, and that's the grounding of his identity. He's a person, not because he knows himself, but because God, the Creator, knew him, knows him, and in His covenant love, God, the Creator, will never not know him. There's never a second or a fraction of a second when the Creator does not know him.
Now, in chapel last Thursday, I actually decided to show a bit of photography to students. It's photography I've never been able to forget, not that I've wanted to. It's just so emblazoned in my imagination. There were two sets of these photographs and they were also turned into videos at some point. The first set came in 1965, the second, not until the 1990s.
What am I talking about? I'm talking about the work of a Swedish photographer by the name of Lennart Nilsson. In 1965, a cover story in Life Magazine ran the first photographs a human had ever taken inside the womb during the period of early fetal development. Lennart Nilsson, back when it was just, all of a sudden, possible to put a near microscopic camera into the womb and then to illuminate inside the womb, and then to see the inhabitant of the womb. The pictures were so absolutely earth-shaking and astounding that Life Magazine put them on the front cover and many photographs were included inside, and those who saw those photographs, the first round in 1965, could never forget what they saw with their own eyes.
By the second round of the photographs, made possible only by later technology, Lennart Nilsson was actually able to use a microscope within the context of the woman's reproductive system to trace the very moment when the egg was penetrated by a sperm cell, and then you begin to see the differentiation that will come. It was at that moment that, at least in the union of those two cells by God's perfect plan, God said, "Let there be life." When does human personhood begin? Well, in some sense, it has to begin right there.
Now, in chapel, I not only showed the pictures, I held up a copy of the 1990 edition, that second round of these photographs that so impacted the world. I still have that copy, that print copy, in my files and it's sitting on my desk right now.
And yet, the most important thing for Christians to understand is that those photographs don't provide the authority for our understanding of these things. They're not the divine revelation. Scripture is and Scripture is enough. Long before those pictures were available, we understand what God is saying to us in His word about His knowledge of us in the womb.
You ask about fetal personhood. Just think about Psalm 139 or think about John leaping in Elizabeth's womb. Think about Jesus in Mary's womb, and you'll understand this isn't an issue of medieval Catholicism. This is an issue of biblical Christianity.
This is How Evil Defends Itself: Chinese Communist Leaders Learned Exactly the Wrong Lessons from the Life and Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev
But finally, let's turn to a very different issue. You recall that in recent days, at least some in Russia were mourning the death of the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, I wrote a major article and we covered the issue of Mikhail Gorbachev, his life and legacy extensively on The Briefing days ago. I'm not returning in order to make a reconsideration. I'm returning to make a point and the point is that the lessons of someone like Mikhail Gorbachev were actually learned, in many cases, by exactly the wrong people, and they were learned exactly in reverse.
What am I talking about? Well, this is just another Christian worldview way of understanding how sin works and how sin works in the mind of a tyrant. Who am I talking about here? Well, for one thing, I am talking about the leaders of nations such as North Korea and Communist China. I'm talking about the strongmen, the autocrats, the dictators at the head of the Communist Party in China, and also the head of the entirely egocentric and oddly neo-Marxist regime there in North Korea, basically just a cult, a personality armed with nuclear weapons.
What am I talking about here? Well, this is just another manifestation of how sin works throughout human history. Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union and, at least in the view of other dictators, he started out as a dictator. But insofar as the dictator saw it, Mikhail Gorbachev flunked being a dictator, and they're not about to learn the same lessons the hard way. Or to put it in another way, many of the dictators and totalitarian leaders around the world observing what happened to the USSR and its crack-up, and the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev lost his job even as the communist party failed to have control over the Soviet Union, they saw that and they said, "Well, we're certainly not going to let that happen here, here in China, here in North Korea and elsewhere."
Hannah Beech, writing an analysis piece for the New York Times tells us, "In much of the West, Mikhail Gorbachev is hailed as the farsighted visionary who brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. But for autocratic leaders in other parts of the world, his legacy stands as a cautionary tale of power discarded quickly and, by some estimates, cavalierly with little or nothing in return."
Beech goes on to say that the primary student of this lesson is the communist leadership in China, and in particular, Xi Jinping, who is expected to be appointed to a third term, unprecedented third term, as the top leader of the Communist Party and the regime there in China. She then writes, "The dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with it the birth of independent nations and the demise of an all-powerful political party, are precisely the kinds of political shock waves that Mr. Xi has committed his career to avoiding."
Then she writes this, a lot of irony here, "China's leaders would regard everything the final leader of the Communist Party of the USSR did as a textbook on how not to go about business." That statement made by Kerry Brown, a political historian at King's College in London and, we're told, the author of books about Xi Jinping there in China, and you're just looking at the fact that this is the way sin works. Sin works by sinners observing other sinners and saying, "You know, you let up just a little bit and you end up out of office. You end up on the wrong side of history."
One of the other things that wasn't particularly mentioned here is that another example which can be cited here was the fall of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Now Qaddafi made a deal with Western nations to end his efforts to try to secure nuclear weapons, and for a matter of years, he basically preserved his rule. But eventually, dictators end up with an awful lot of enemies inside the state, and those enemies were able to rise up against Muammar Qaddafi and he ended up dead in a ditch in the year 2011.
A lot of strongmen, and in particular Kim Jong-un, who is the totalitarian egocentric leader of North Korea, he simply decided, "Well, I am not going to follow that example," and when you had Western nations, and in particular the United States demand that North Korea end its nuclear weapons program, basically the leadership of North Korea said, "You know what? We saw what happened to Libya. Not going to happen here."
But I'm going to leave this for a moment. It is interesting to see how the doctrine of sin, which is made clear only in the Christian worldview, how that plays out so graphically in headlines like this and in history. But it's also just interesting for us to recognize that as we're looking at this, we are also looking at the fact that you have theological dimensions to the judgment of history.
Now that is to say there are those who look at Mikhail Gorbachev and say, "As an historical perspective, we'll judge him to have done well, we'll judge him to be a man of peace." Others to say, "No, he deserves blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union. He was the catalyst for a world disaster." But you know what, President George W. Bush once said, rather dismissively, that he wasn't concerned with how historians were going to treat him because he said, "After all, by then, we'll all be dead."
Now, I'm not classifying George W. Bush at all with those other leaders, and by the way, he's a professing Christian, so the point I'm going to make is one that he would also, I'm quite certain, affirm, but it comes down to this. The Christian worldview tells us that the ultimate verdict doesn't come by historians. It doesn't come when people at our funeral say, "You know, the net was good" or "The net was bad." It doesn't come when historians say, "Here are the gains, here are the losses. Here's the analysis, here are the arguments." No, the final judgment comes when a holy and righteous, sovereign, all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient God says, "This is the final verdict," on that great and terrifying day of judgment.
The only rescue, of course, will come by having come to know and to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and come to know the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. On that day of judgment, there will be two destinies, only two, one into salvation and into everlasting joy, the other into God's wrath and everlasting punishment.
But you know what? If you are a doctrinaire Marxist, you don't believe in God and you don't believe in any kind of impending heavenly judgment, all you worry about is earthly judgment and here's another worldview lesson for us. It turns out that if all you worry about is earthly judgment, the judgment that might be made after you're dead and after, frankly, you died safely in your palace, you dream, with your covers pulled up to your chin, the reality is that if you do not fear divine judgment, that's going to turn out to have political and personal implications. You're going to live like you do not believe that judgment's ever coming.
But then let me flip the reality. Those of us who are Christians know that judgment is coming. The question for us is without regard to the historians who may or may not ever have reason to argue about this one way or the other, do we live as if we actually believe that judgment is coming?
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Miami, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.