Of lettuces and cow-humans
A recent international conference in Sydney, Australia, on Health, Law and Ethics highlighted the huge ethical, social, legal and moral dilemmas we are and will be facing in the next few years because of advances in genetic engineering, in vitro fertilisation (IVF), embryo research, etc.
One almost reels with shock as reports from the conference relay news of a man in West Germany carrying twins in his abdomen. We are not told how successfully or for how long, but the fact is that someone did use IVF techniques to implant a pregnancy into a man. We are told it is technically feasible for animals to carry implanted human babies, and even more horrifying, that in the United Kingdom cow ova (eggs) have been impregnated with human sperm (where thus far the ‘pregnancy’ is terminated before it gets beyond the two-cell stage). In the United States, 20,000 cow-human embryos are created each month, supposedly for testing male fertility.*
Dr J. Densen-Gerber, a speaker at the conference who has been asked by 11 American States to draft legislation in this area, and who hardly qualifies as the lunatic fringe, was quoted as saying: ‘If you don’t think there are Frankensteins sitting in the world’s laboratories playing God, I think you don’t really understand what’s going on.’
It is at once fascinating, deeply saddening and frustrating for a Bible-believing Christian to watch distinguished panels and committees attempting to establish lasting moral and ethical frameworks for these issues. This is because the ‘bottom line’ in all these areas is that there is no bottom line. The framework of thinking with which these people (and most of society, including large numbers of theologians dealing with moral and ethical issues) begin includes the assumption that there are, finally, no immovable absolutes.
As Australian media personality and atheist Phillip Adams has eloquently and correctly pointed out, a self-created (evolved) universe can have no absolute frame of moral reference—no ultimate definition of good or bad. Think about it. If there is no Creator, no one owns you and so you can write your own rules. Society may decree that it is wrong to kill a human being, based on individual self-interest or the self-preservation of your particular group or species. But this is not an absolute basis for morality, since another social environment may arise in which it is suddenly decreed that it is all right, for example, to kill everyone over 70 years of age so younger people get a better start in life. If you think this is absurd, consider how easily educated, civilised Germans were persuaded that it was ‘right’ to kill the retarded or mentally deranged for the purity of the race during the Nazi years of applied evolutionary ethics.
But, you may say, most people today agree on the basic issues of ‘human rights’. What are these so-called rights based on? Purely a temporary consensus in the midst of an ever-shifting base of human opinion. Self-interest makes it unlikely for the present that society will be advocating mass slaughter of the over-70s—after all, we will get there ourselves before too long. But look at what has already happened in a stage of human life which we have safely passed ourselves—conception to birth. What guarantee is there of the human rights of the embryo or foetus? Since evolutionary ethics ultimately comes down to social convenience, there is none. The result can be seen in the abortion holocaust in developed countries.
A convinced evolutionist may be horrified by the Nazi gas chambers or by the ruthless slaughter of tens of millions in the Soviet Union, but he ultimately has no philosophical basis for his condemnation of such acts. He cannot finally say why, for example, the deliberate killing of 10 million Ukrainians by Stalin in the 1930s was inherently different from mowing the grass on the lawn. (This is in fact Stalin’s own example. Since, in his belief system (evolution) the blades of grass are complex sets of chemicals which have self-emanated by chance and necessity from a non-living world, just as we ourselves supposedly have, they have no less and no more basic ‘right’ to existence than a human being.) [Author's note added May 2012: When this 1987 article was written, we were not as careful in retaining written sources as in later years, and when asked to back this up I have been unable to do so, or to even have any idea whence I gained the idea. Hence the notion that Stalin himself said something like this, which to my regret I have repeated in a few subsequent articles over the years (now also with an author's note) should not be accepted unless such documentation is ever forthcoming, which appears unlikely. Another common urban myth about Stalin, even repeated in some dictionaries is that he said something like "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." At least in the case of that, one has some idea where it originated, but I have never been able to find the source of my own miscitation. Any knowledgeable reader input is welcomed. Thanks to Kerri Hildebrandt for alerting me to this--CW]
If you think this is a little harsh, consider the discussion at the said conference of the ‘rights’ or otherwise of human embryos—in particular, their right not to be experimented upon or casually discarded as ‘spares’ once a number have been created in IVF procedures.
Embryo: A Lettuce
Professor Peter Singer, a philosopher and director of the Centre for Human Bioethics, argued against many of the present restrictions on research on embryos. On what basis? Because, suggests Professor Singer, the embryo, at least until it develops a nervous system, is the moral equivalent of a lettuce. ‘I believe, in terms of its rights or moral status, it doesn’t even reach the level of the standard laboratory animal. It is more like a vegetated existence, a lettuce if you like.’
Notice that Singer attributes a certain moral ‘right’ to laboratory animals. He is in fact a major figure in the animal rights movement—a logical outgrowth of Darwinian thought. Only, rather than lowering humans to the level of grass or rats as Stalin did, ‘animal libbers’ elevate the rats towards the human status. Being very consistent, Singer then said he would prefer to see embryos used in experiments to test chemicals rather than rabbits as is presently the case.
This latter statement was attacked by the Professor of Health Law at Boston University, George Annas. Good, you may say. But on what grounds? He said, ‘If you really believe there is no difference between a rabbit and a human embryo you should be happy to bottle human embryos in a jar and send them to gourmets to eat.’ Most people would have no trouble eating roasted rabbits, he goes on to say, but would baulk at eating human embryos.
Notice how philosophically unstable this is as a basis for the rights of the human embryo. People’s taste or psychological revulsion! What if a generation could be conditioned to accept this new food? Your whole moral/ethical base must shift again.
Rights of a Reef Cod
But is Professor Annas a champion of the rights of the human embryo in any case? Does he base some of his approach on a recognition of human uniqueness? According to him, the foetus, while needing protection, does not have any rights. His analogy to explain this? ‘The Barrier Reef cod is worth protecting but doesn’t have any rights.’
A truly Christian attitude to the question of the rights of the embryo/foetus is based upon the revelation of the Creator, who has made it clear that the human individual is to be regarded as fully human, even though it is still developing in the womb and thus has the same dignity and God-given rights as any human made in the image of God.
This does not mean that all the answers to the complex ethical issues of human reproduction follow simply and naturally from there. But at least, in the difficult process of navigation, we have a reliable magnetic pole as a starting point for our directional calculations. Ethical philosophers and law-makers of today, by contrast, mostly begin in the unenviable position of having already voted to cut the North Pole adrift and end up lost in a sea of confusion. The whole concept of wrestling with morals and ethics in an evolutionary world-view is, in the final analysis, absurd.
But wait, you may say, what about those who believe in a Creator and an evolutionary world-view?
Such is true of many members of distinguished theological committees set up to examine these questions. However, to any outside observer, there is little to distinguish their deliberations from that of the non-theist. By embracing evolution, they may still believe there is a Creator, but of necessity they have cut themselves off from the position that the moral absolutes of the Creator have been revealed to us in a historically true, trustworthy form. For example, how can you have unshakable confidence in the unchanging moral imperative of the Ten Commandments if you believe that. for reasons of folklore, cultural error, or whatever, Exodus 20:11 (part of one of the Commandments) doesn’t mean what it says?
Before we go further, I want to make two things clear: First we must beware of a purely negative and reactionary approach (a ‘totally banning’ mentality) to these complex issues. Let our thinking be truly biblical, but let us liberally seek and apply wisdom from God within the framework of his given moral absolutes, and let us in the process show a sensitivity and gentleness appropriate to the Holy Spirit within us. Remember that advances in science and technology are not in themselves bad, and may be considered as a part of our Genesis mandate to have dominion over and subdue the creation (up to a point!).
Second, I am not saying that all the people involved in trying to resolve these ethical questions are deliberately seeking to propagate immoral positions. Far from it. The very fact that they may seem perplexed and troubled by the moral questions may reflect the workings of God’s law deep within the hearts of all men.
In spite of being outraged by some of their comments, I cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for many of them, especially those charged with making laws in a secular world in this area, as they have in a sense inherited a cut anchor-rope (since society, with the blessing of many in the Church, has hacked away the creation-based absolutes of biblical Christian ethics. Nevertheless, they are still deeply troubled by the uncontrolled way the ship of humanity is being driven towards the rocks by the winds of uncontrolled biotechnological progress).
For instance, Dr Densen-Gerber says that ‘this is the most difficult job I have ever had and it challenges almost everything I’ve believed in.’ She felt strongly enough about what was happening to use words such as ‘Frankensteins’, ‘Armageddon’, ‘mad scientists’ and so on. She also freely admits that she doesn’t have the answers and often changes her own views.
Like ‘righteous Lot’ in Sodom, our hearts are grieved as we see all these affronts to God’s standards and holiness. But we are called on to be more than grieved—to be light and salt in a dark and decaying world. What a profound witness it would be if significant numbers of Christian professionals were to constructively enter this debate totally sure of the Genesis creation foundations of their faith and its ethical aspects. Unlike the flounderings of evolutionary committees, they would have a basis, a real anchor, a stable compass-point and a rock-sure foundation upon which to base their opinions.
Let us affirm the rights and dignity of men and women of all ages because they really were directly created, in the image of God, and are not cousins to lettuces, reef cod or, for that matter, rabbits (roasted or otherwise)!
How tragic that so many in the Church still consider creation/evolution to be an unimportant issue!
*Although it is clearly monstrous to even try to breed a ‘cow-human’, no one should think that this (barring technological intervention) could in any sense result in a biologically viable creature. Similar evolution-inspired fantasies recently fuelled a newspaper report that a chimpanzee in China, allegedly impregnated with human sperm, was about to deliver. A South Australian churchman—a columnist for a leading newspaper—devoted serious concern and space to the ethical dilemmas which would be posed by these soon-to-be-present ‘chumans’. Could we use them for cheap labour? Naturally there have never been any ‘chumans’ from such fertilization, nor will there be. [Author’s addendum inserted March 2005: Obviously, given the ability to manipulate genes via technology, the genetic barriers between the ‘kinds’ can be crossed, and in fact that has already happened in certain creatures.]