August 16, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, August 16, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Is more information always better? Parenting in the age of prenatal screening and the designer baby
What if you could know almost everything about your children, even before they were born? That’s the question that’s address straightforwardly in a Time magazine story this week. The story is by Emily Oster. It’s entitled,
“Pandora’s Baby the New Science of Predicting Your Child.”Show Full Transcript
She says, what if a mother knows she’s going to have two children, one a boy and one a girl?
“I try to treat them equally, to assume equal potential. But what if I knew my daughter carried a ‘smart’ gene and my son did not? When he came home from school with a B, would I assume it was just his genes, and not push him to try harder? And what if I could have known this before he were born, at a time when he was just a little blip on an ultrasound? Frankly, I’m not sure I would trust myself with this information.”
That’s one of the most interesting moral statements of modern time. Let’s forget the context for a moment and just consider what this economist is telling us. She says,
“I’m not sure I would trust myself with that information.”
Before we even consider what the information might address itself to, we need to understand the information in itself raises a moral responsibility. This is a moral issue that often escapes the concern of many Christians, but this article should put it front and center. Should we trust ourselves with every bit of information that might be available to us?
One of the things the Christian must understand is a certain form of intellectual modesty. There are certain things we are not to know. What we have in this article is an economist asking very squarely and honestly if she would trust herself with the information that is now and might soon be available through prenatal testing. Concerning the scenario in which there are two hypothetical children, one a girl with a smart gene and a boy without, the mother then goes on to say,
“Such knowledge isn’t, of course, possible yet.”
That is, the knowledge of who might have this gene before birth.
“For one thing, we haven’t yet found many genes that can reliably predict intelligence. And at the moment, even if we did know what genes we were looking for, we wouldn’t be able to find them very early in pregnancy. But thanks to a new kind of fetal genetic testing this may be starting to change.”
She then gives a little essential background here. She writes the obvious,
“Once upon a time, everything about your baby was a surprise until the moment of birth,” including the question, of course, is it a boy or is it a girl?
She says that mothers and fathers “may still engage in the ritual counting of fingers and toes on our new baby, but it’s all for show: really, we checked for those months ago in an ultrasound. And for many women, genetic testing during pregnancy has ruled out—or all but ruled out—the possibility that their child has a genetic abnormality.
Oster then goes back to the 1960s when the earliest form of prenatal diagnostic testing became available through amniocentesis. As she says that procedure “allowed doctors to identify genetic disorders in utero, typically mid-pregnancy.”
Now one of the things we need to understand is that amniocentesis, all the way back to the 1960s and until fairly recent times, was used in only cases in which it was believed it might be indicated or necessary. It was expensive and it was not routine. But it’s now increasingly true that every pregnancy is subjected to a series of prenatal diagnostic tests, and that includes not only now the ultrasound, but all forms of genetic testing that takes place long before birth. And of course, we also have in so many these cases what amounts to a potential search-and-destroy mission inside the womb. Many of these tests will present parents with the inevitable question: once you have this genetic information, once you know that this child is likely for instance to be characterized by Down Syndrome, will you abort?
We then have the next stage in this moral argument in a very frightening direction in which it is increasingly defined as responsible medical decision-making to abort the child rather than to allow it to be born. Emily Oster understands that it won’t stop here. She asks the question, if this is true for the majority of parents who now have a child that is indicated to be carrying the markers of Down Syndrome, if the majority of those parents by a vast number these days abort the child, then what if it is soon possible to give an indication of autism rather than down syndrome? How many parents would make a similar decision? How severe a case of autism would be the tripwire for many parents? Or would there simply be the determination that this genetic bad news is sufficient reason to abort this child and start all over again?
This is not only the threat of the age of the designer baby, it is also the arrival of the age of the designer baby. And in this article both Time magazine and Emily Oster deserve credit for pointing out that much of this is already taking place. We now know precisely over the issue of sex-selection abortion already we have by global estimations over 100 million missing women and girls aborted in the womb because prenatal diagnosis indicated that they were female rather than male. Oster writes, and I quote,
“The fact that we can determine characteristics of a baby in utero, combined with the availability of abortion, has always made some people nervous. It suggests eugenics, or a future of ‘designer babies.’ This is not all fanciful concern: in some countries,”
“Prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortion have altered the overall sex ratios in the population.”
She also writes this,
“In general, and in the U.S. in particular, prenatal screening has been effectively limited to serious genetic disorders—the risk of harming the fetus has outweighed the value of the information for other uses.”
Now, notice the clear moral implication in that paragraph. The moral implication is that the discovery of what’s identified as a serious genetic disorder or the likelihood of the same would be an adequate justification for aborting the unborn child. Oster has it exactly right when she says that “as these tests improve, so too will the range of conditions they can detect.”
Later, she writes this,
“What if you could know, at six weeks of pregnancy, whether your child would inherit your height, or hair color, or IQ? As I mentioned earlier, early gender testing is already used for gender-selective abortion, largely outside the U.S. This was true even when gender detection was not possible until 18 or 20 weeks.”
Once again, you have the moral implication that that would make a difference. That’s also, from the worldview of the Christian, a very dangerous presupposition. Oster, who is a professor of economics at Brown University, then writes,
“I’m trained as an economist, and one of our general principles is that more information is better. Information helps us make better—more optimal—decisions. And, crucially, more information cannot make you worse off, since you can always just ignore it. Under this theory,”
“These advances in genetic testing should be welcomed without reservation.”
And yet, she doesn’t. She continues her thought by writing,
“The balance between the values of information and the possibility of mis-use is a difficult one. It would be a shame to fail to pursue technologies that are likely to deliver great gains. At the same time, it is naïve to pursue them without thinking about their consequences. And we should start thinking about these now. Ready or not, the future is coming.”
But there is one huge problem with her argument. It really doesn’t matter so much right now or even later if we decide whether or not this information should be used if it is discovered, because there is a general principle demonstrable in human history: if the information is known, it will be used. In one sense, the age of the designer baby has already arrived. It’s just going to be arriving with far more power and a far more powerful threat in coming years even as announced by the new technologies discussed in this article. Emily Oster raises a host of very legitimate questions here, and she raises them quite courageously.
But, what’s missing from this larger picture is the reality that if the information does exist, it will be used, and it will be used by some parents in order to gain a child by use of this technology that will meet all of their genetic and other expectations. But that’s only half the story, because the flipside of the story is that they will eliminate the children who do not meet those specifications. And recent experience would indicate they will have support of a society, a consumer society used to buying exactly what every consumer wants behind them.
The microscopic matters: House passes measure protecting frozen embryos of veterans
Next, an article on a related theme, this one in the New York Times. It’s by Jennifer Steinhauer. The headline:
“House Measure Protecting Embryos Threatens Veterans’ Fertility Treatments.”
This is a serious issue. It turns out that, especially in the aftermath of recent military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significant number of American veterans have fertility issues, often related to injuries gained in the service of this country. There is now a controversy about the fact that a House panel approved legislation that would restrict the funding of medical care in terms of these fertility treatments so that embryos created by means of these federal, taxpayer-supported treatments could not be discarded or destroyed. This has led to outrage in some circles who are arguing that that means these veterans will not have access in effect to IVF, or in vitro technology, in order to overcome fertility issues.
Responding to the decision by the House panel, a liberal Democratic Senator from Washington State, Senator Patty Murray, said it was “just plain wrong.”
She went on to say,
“I don’t know why this amendment was proposed in the first place, but I would hope and expect that any member of Congress who respects our service members, veterans, their spouses, and their wishes to have a family will help make sure this effort goes nowhere.”
Well, it’s interesting that she uses the moral language this is “just plain wrong,” but then she says that she doesn’t even know why the amendment was proposed in the first place. Well, it comes down to this: it’s the basic question as to whether or not that embryo is a human being. That’s a bigger question that many lawmakers don’t want to confront. But it’s a question that must be confronted in terms of this technology.
The background of this news story is the fact that in vitro fertilization actually usually takes place with multiple embryos created by means of the technology and only selective embryos are ever transferred into the womb. The rest are discarded and eventually destroyed.
Right now it is estimated that there are over 1 million frozen human embryos awaiting transfer, and that transfer will never come. Those embryos will be discarded and eventually they will be destroyed. From a biblical worldview perspective, here’s the question: what is the moral status, what is the reality status of those human embryos? Are they indeed human beings? If your answer to that is anything less than an emphatic “yes,” then somehow you presume the knowledge of when exactly that embryo does become a human being. That’s an issue that is central and of course controversial to the abortion debate, but this presses the issue back far beyond abortion into fertilization treatments, and in particular IVF technology.
The House panel was very clearly acting out of the concern that the creation of these embryos merely for many of them to be discarded and destroyed was wrong and that taxpayer funding of the technology was thus wrong. The statement by Senator Murray—that she doesn’t know why the amendment was proposed in the first place—tells you just how far a secular society committed to the minimization of human dignity has now gone. There are many moral divides in America today, but one of the most basic comes down to one of the most microscopic: whether or not an embryonic human being is actually a human being. The biblical worldview answer to that is an emphatic “yes” because every single human being exists not just because of the chance collision of two cells, but because the Creator himself said, “Let there be life.” Sometimes the most microscopic issues can be the largest morally speaking.
"Having a baby" doesn't mean what it used to: Four lesbians sue New Jersey over fertility treatment
On yet another related theme, another article from the New York Times, this one by Megan Jula. Here’s a headline for you:
“4 Lesbians Sue Over New Jersey Rules on Fertility Treatment.”
Now once again we have a related story, a very different context, a different location, a different headline. The background of this controversy is the fact that the State of New Jersey has a regulation in effect that limits insurance coverage to demonstrations of infertility after two years of a couple attempting to have a baby. Now when you look at this, it’s clear we have a problem. And the problem is this: the insurance regulation was written with the understanding that fertility treatments would be addressed to a man and a woman unable to have a child. But of course this is now a matter of controversy in the State of New Jersey and elsewhere because the entire expression “having a child” has now moved into a new realm of moral discourse and into a new definition of marriage.
Now you have same-sex couples, both male and female, speaking routinely and being recognized publicly as “having a baby.” And yet all technological advances aside, there is actually no biological way, even in August 2016, that either two women or two men can alone have a baby together. Instead, “having a baby” is now redefined in terms of the use of modern, advanced reproductive techniques in order to overcome the issue that is clear that a woman and a woman or a man and a man can’t have a baby in terms of the historic, traditional, biological sense.
But the new moral revolution has stretched the definition of “having a baby,” and of course even now there is no technology that would allow the genetic information from two women or two men alone to be combined in such a way that there would be a human baby that they would have even genetically had together. Instead, there has to be the use of in vitro fertilization or surrogacy or some combination in order that at the most, genetic information of one of the members of the same-sex couples could be somehow transferred to the child.
But this is now seen as a matter of discrimination, the fact that this insurance regulation on the books in New Jersey clearly has heterosexual couples in mind. And in all likelihood the State of New Jersey’s going to have to change the insurance regulation. Because after all, the moral revolution’s going to sweep everything into the revolution itself, and that’s going to include even insurance regulations.
But this is where the Christian worldview affirms that something huge is happening here. It goes beyond the four plaintiffs in this case, it goes far beyond New Jersey, and it goes far beyond even the reproductive technologies that are at stake here and certainly the context of insurance regulation, when it points to the fact that some huge moral barrier has been crossed when the phrase “having a baby” is now so utterly redefined.
You put these three stories together—and they appear just within the span of a few days—and we understand the sexual revolution can only take place in the context of a larger, more fundamental moral revolution, and then we come to understand that both of these revolutions have been made possible by technological revolutions, without which we simply wouldn’t even be having this discussion. If there had not been the invention and development of in vitro fertilization, there wouldn’t be any way for these same-sex couples even to use the expression that is now becoming routine: “having a baby.” The lawsuit we just discussed could never have existed. But even before that, the birth control revolution, also driven by technology, redefined the conjugal relationship even between a husband and a wife before at a larger level, redefining the relationships sexually between men and women, making pregnancy a choice. And then you had the abortion revolution that made every pregnancy tentative. You put all of this with the threat of this new genetic technology, and every pregnancy is going to be tentative and every baby is going to be a designer baby. And just about everyone, we are told, can have a baby.
All that to remind us that the Brave New World isn’t somewhere out there in the distant future, the Brave New World is, just as this Time magazine article announced, already here. The important thing for Christians in the midst of this is to keep our biblical bearings and to make certain that we know that the answer to these questions cannot be found in technology. It cannot be determined by scientists. We are told the value of every single human life in Scripture, and it is the scriptural grounding of human life and human dignity in the creative act of a sovereign God that makes every difference.
Furthermore, we understand, even as this Time magazine article partly understands, there is a moral dimension to knowledge. But we didn’t need Time magazine to tell us that. Important as the article is, we were told that in the first three chapters of the book of Genesis, and that’s a story of how we found ourselves in trouble, trouble from which we could not rescue ourselves for which the only answer could be redemption.
The difference between "burkinis" and bikinis—other than the amount of fabric—is one of worldview
Next, there is controversy in terms of the Olympics in Rio. that’s not new. But the particular controversies are: in one of these controversies, an Egyptian athlete refused to shake the hand of an Israeli judo athlete who had bested him in a competition. That led to a lot of conversation, and that conversation and controversy went viral in terms of the media. But we also now know that there have been repeated acts of anti-Semitism that have reached very alarming proportions there in Rio involving not just this singular Egyptian athlete, but others from Arab nations as well.
But we also see something else that is developing, and that has to do with discrimination, not just against Israeli athletes, but implicit discrimination against Muslim athletes as well. Another image that has gone viral from Rio has to do with two female athletes who are competing in beach volleyball. Now here you may remember the picture. It involves one athlete from Egypt and another from Germany. The Egyptian athlete is covered nearly head to toe in terms of a hijab; the German athlete is uncovered virtually head to toe with very minimal coverage in terms of a bikini.
This has led to a great deal of controversy in Rio and beyond with at least many observers, prominent among them feminists in Western countries, arguing that it is a form of non-allowable discrimination to have a woman required to wear this kind of covering even in an athletic competition. But the argument has gone further. It has been argued that it shouldn’t even be allowable if the woman freely chooses to dress in this way because it demeans women.
But this raises a huge question that has to do not only with the conflict in worldview when it comes to modesty between the Arab world and the Western world, but what we have in the story coming from the French Riviera from the town Cannes, famous for its annual film festival. As Aurelien Breeden and Lilia Blaise wright for the New York Times,
“The mayor of the French resort city of Cannes has barred women from bathing on public beaches in swimsuits that reveal too little skin.”
That is the exact wording of the article in the New York Times. I repeat,
“The mayor of the French resort city of Cannes has barred women from bathing on public beaches in swimsuits that reveal too little skin.”
Now what we face here is the ultimate, if ludicrous, demonstration of the collision between two different worldviews—a worldview in which in the name of the liberation of women, a mayor in a French city would say that women are banned from the public beaches if they cover too much skin; and, of course, you have the opposite moral argument saying that women should not be uncovering themselves out of respect for modesty. The biblical worldview clearly values modesty. That is not to say that the biblical worldview requires modesty as defined in terms of much of the Muslim world, with the hijab and the covering of a woman not only in terms of her body, but also often of her face.
But this particular article points to the fact that the enforced, totalitarian secularism of modern France has run headlong into a worldview collision with many French residents and citizens who believe it to be immoral to go to the beach while exposing nudity, and in particular female nudity. The particular form of beach attire that is now outlawed in Cannes, France is known as the “burkini,” especially designed to protect the modesty of Islamic women. And yet what we had in the picture coming out of Rio was a bikini, and this has led many to point to the fact that there’s a basic worldview collision between women who wear the burkini and those who wear the bikini. And of course, there is more here than fashion style that is at stake.
But we also need to see that the enforced secularism of France has lead it to ban the burkini, which is by any understanding a violation of religious liberty. And so we understand from a Christian worldview perspective that even fashion is never merely about fashion. And what we’re watching when we see even something like an athletic competition between two women, one from Egypt and one from Germany, well, we come to understand, and I say this with irony, that there is far more present than meets the eye. The difference between a bikini and a burkini is not just the amount of fabric. It is the worldview, and the understanding and morality that lies behind it.