The Briefing 03-06-17

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Scientism and ethics: Scientist raises host of ethical questions in human embryo, "embryoid" research

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Pew: Islam is only religion growing faster than world's population, will outgrow Christianity in 2070

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The debate isn't over: California cities debate marijuana licensing even as it is legalized statewide

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The Briefing

March 6, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, March 6, 2017, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Scientism and ethics: Scientist raises host of ethical questions in human embryo, "embryoid" research

At the forefront of biomedical ethics is controversy over the experimentation that is now being conducted and might in the future be conducted with human embryos. A really interesting report came out last week on National Public Radio’s morning edition program by science editor Rob Stein. He writes,

“Ali Brivanlou slides open a glass door at the Rockefeller University in New York to show off his latest experiments probing the mysteries of the human embryo.

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“‘As you can see, all my lab is glass — just to make sure there is nothing that happens in some dark rooms that gives people some weird ideas.’”

At this point Rob Stein said that Brivanlou was “perhaps only half joking.”

But this is where we need to understand that this kind of joke is pointing to a very deep moral reality that actually represents an urgent moral crisis, and that is the fact that those weird ideas that this researcher talks about is actually not just science fiction, something that might happen in the future, it’s about what is happening right in his laboratory as reported in this NPR story right now. Brivanlou, according to Stein, knows that some of his research makes people uncomfortable. Stein says that’s one reason he’s agreed to give the science editor at NPR a look at what’s going on. The summary of the research is very clear. In this particular lab and others they’ve now discovered how to keep human embryos alive in lab conditions longer than ever before, at least 14 days. That’s the claim being made about Brivanlou’s lab and at least one other.

The big story here is the keeping the embryos longer than 14 days. And actually, the big story is the ability to keep those embryos available and alive for experimentation for over 14 days. Now why is that such a big story? Well, it’s a huge story as this NPR report makes clear precisely because 14 days had been established for two reasons. First of all, it was the point at which a moral boundary was thought to be crossed with what scientists at least had defined as “individuation.” But there was also a second issue, and that’s merely technological. It was not believed that laboratories would have the ability to keep those embryos alive past 14 days. To state the merely obvious, this is a human embryo that is in a laboratory situation and is not as embryos were intended to be implanted in a mother’s womb. But Rob Stein now reports Brivanlou in his lab and at least one other,

“Discovered how to keep human embryos alive in lab dishes longer than ever before — at least 14 days. That has triggered an international debate about a long-standing convention (one that’s legally binding in some countries, though not in the U.S.) that prohibits studying human embryos that have developed beyond the two-week stage.”

Now if you could see the story you would understand that there was a parenthetical statement there. Inside the parenthesis, speaking of this convention that embryo research could not continue beyond 14 days, we were told that this is one—a convention that is—that’s legally binding in some countries, though not in the U.S. Now that’s a very soon clarification, because not only is this kind of moral law not binding in the United States on medical researchers, but there are almost no legal restraints whatsoever in terms of human experimentation on embryos in the United States. Let’s be clear, at this point there is no law in the United States preventing experimentation on human embryos even to the point of attempting to clone a human being. That effort might be beyond our technological ability, but at this point it’s not actually against the law.

When Stein reports what’s going on in this laboratory and the pressing against current moral barriers, we are told that Brivanlou is using human stem cells to “create entities that resemble certain aspects of primitive embryos.”

According to the NPR report,

“Brivanlou doesn’t believe that these ‘embryoids,’” as he calls them in contrast to human embryos, “would be capable of developing into fully formed embryos, their creation has stirred debate about whether embryoids should be subject to the 14-day rule.”

So to cut to the chase, the key question at first is this, what would actually be the distinction between a human embryo, acknowledged by all persons to be a human embryo, and what this researcher wants to call merely an embryoid? Well, it becomes clear that origin is at least part of the explanation, because human embryos as they have been defined, are products of human cells, that is the male and the female reproductive cell. This particular entity he’s calling an embryoid would actually be the product of stimulating human stem cells to create something very much like an embryo. Of course, the question is, how much like an embryo? And the answer is that this particular researcher doesn’t think that these embryoids will be capable of developing into a fully human embryo, but there’s actually nothing biological that explains why they would not. This could well end up being a distinction without a difference.

Right here in this story broadcast last week on National Public Radio we see how researchers keep pushing past not only previously unreachable technological barriers, but moral barriers as well. We are told at one time this will be the absolute moral barrier that will protect human dignity, and the next thing you know, once the technological barrier is crossed or at least it looks like the technological barrier might be crossed, you see scientists arguing that now we have to loosen the moral concerns as well. For example, Brivanlou says that he welcomes debates about human embryo research,

“But he hopes society can reach a consensus to permit his work to continue, so he can answer some of humanity’s most fundamental questions.”

Now that’s exactly the kind of devil’s bargain that we see again and again. If you just allow us to cross this moral barrier, we will cure cancer. If you just allow us to cross the next moral barrier, we will eventually defeat mortality and death. And here we are told that if you just allow this researcher to cross this moral boundary,

“He can answer some of humanity’s most fundamental questions.”

What are those questions? Brivanlou said,

“If I can provide a glimpse of, ‘Where did we come from? What happened to us, for us to get here?’ I think that, to me, is a strong enough rationale to continue pushing this.”

There you have a very straightforward claim being made by this scientist. It’s a moral imperative in his view that we simply have to allow him to keep expanding this research in order to answer fundamental questions, questions so basic as, where did we come from? He claims he can answer those questions if we will just allow him to expand the moral boundaries to create embryoids, as he calls them, and to allow them to pass that 14 day limit.

But even as Stein tells us, for decades scientists thought the longest an embryo could survive outside the womb was only about a week, but this has now enabled scientists to continue research pressing beyond that to study “living human embryos at a crucial point in their development, a time when they’re usually hidden in a woman’s womb.”

Now there’s an amazing concession. The embryo, in other words, would be exactly where it belongs, in a woman’s womb. The researcher said,

“Women don’t even know they are pregnant at that stage. So it has always been a big black box.”

There is an absolutely amazing testimony in this article to the wonder of God’s creation, not only of the entire cosmos and even of human beings in particular as the only creature made in his image, but every single human being and that includes, of course, every single human embryo. One of the most amazing things in this article is that the researchers explain that,

“Those willowy structures are what embryos would normally extend at this stage to search for a place to implant inside the uterus. Scientists used to think embryos could do that only if they were receiving instructions from the mother’s body.”

Brivanlou said,

“The amazing thing is that it’s doing its thing without any information from mom. It just has all the information already in it. That was mind-blowing to me.”

Well to Christians, it should simply be an affirmation of the fact that God has implanted within this embryo the entire plan for its implantation in its mother’s womb, and of course God’s plan beyond that for the entire life of a single individual human being.

Scientism is actually one of the major rival worldviews to biblical Christianity in our age. Scientism holds that the experimental method of science, modern secular science, actually holds the key to discovering the basic knowledge of the universe outside of ourselves and inside of ourselves. Scientism holds that science is the authoritative form of knowledge, everything else has to conform to the norms of modern science, and furthermore, this creates a cast of specialists who are scientists who hold the upper hand in any kind of public debate. That’s exactly what we see in this article. The argument that we hear from so many scientists that if something can be done, it must be done and in the promise that if they are just allowed to do this they will bring about modern miracles. As Stein says,

“The two scientists think studying embryos at this and later stages could lead to discoveries that might point to new ways to stop miscarriages, treat infertility and prevent birth defects.”

Now just remember that Brivanlou a few paragraphs previous had promised to unleash and unlock the entire secret to the universe if only he would be allowed to proceed with this experimentation. Stein summarizes the report as telling us that Brivanlou and his colleagues now believe that they can encourage human embryos to live beyond 14 days, and thus to be subjects of human experimentation. They argue that this can be done so it must be done. It is acknowledged that the 14 day rule is actually in place for moral reasons. As Stein says,

“The 14-day rule was developed decades ago to avoid raising too many ethical questions about experimenting on human embryos.”

But Brivanlou now says it is time to rethink the 14 day rule. This is the moment, he says, and we are told that this debate is now taking place outside the United States.

Here we find another argument we will encounter over and over again, it comes down to this. If we do not conduct this research, then someone else will. Better we do it, comes the argument, given our superior morality than allowing others to do it, for perhaps nationalistic or even racial reasons. Another dimension is revealed when a bioethicist is cited from Case Western Reserve University, he also advocates revisiting the rule as it’s said here,

“It would allow more research to be done on embryos that are destined to be destroyed anyway, he says — embryos donated by couples who have finished infertility treatment.”

Well, what’s not acknowledged here is that we’re talking about a market in and experimentation on human embryos that are “destined to be destroyed anyway.”

At this point, the Christian worldview simply has to interject and say, here’s a huge problem when you’re talking about experimentation on human embryos, that’s one problem, and then destroying those embryos. Those who are committed to a biblical Christian understanding of human dignity and human personhood have to understand that what that means is the willful destruction of a human being, a human being at a very early stage of development.

I’m thankful that NPR at least quoted a bioethicist at Georgetown University who has very serious moral concerns. He said,

“Pushing it beyond 14 days only aggravates what is the primary problem, which is using human life in its earliest stages solely for experimental purposes.”

That researcher, Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, gets the issue absolutely right. Later in the article when Dr. Brivanlou tries to assure us that his embryoids that might become a human embryo would not actually become a human being. He offers us this comfort,

“They will not get up start walking around. I can assure you that.”

That is cold comfort, indeed, what we’re looking at here is the devaluation of human life, not only in the laboratory when we’re talking about a human embryo, but every single human life at every single point of development, every stage of life. It’s important for us to understand the major worldviews of the day, the rival worldviews to Christianity. Scientism is, as I said, one of the most important and powerful of those rival worldviews. And in this article we see exactly how the worldview of Scientism works. If it can be done, it must be done. If it might be done, we should be the doers. Technological barriers are meant to be crossed and if that means tearing down moral barriers, then so be it. The scariest aspect of this article is where the researchers talk openly about the need for another clear stopping point. What’s abundantly clear is that when it comes to the worldview of Scientism, there is no stopping point.

Pew: Islam is only religion growing faster than world's population, will outgrow Christianity in 2070

Next in recent days, a major research report on Muslims and Islam was released by the Pew Research Center, one of the most authoritative research institutions in the world, especially when it comes to understanding religion and religious worldviews across the globe. As the Pew Research Center tells us, in terms of the key findings of this research, perhaps the biggest is that Muslims are now the fastest-growing religious group in the world. Muslims are actually the only religious group in the world growing faster than the world’s own population. Every other major world religion, Christianity included, is actually falling behind the rise of the population. So the population rate is growing faster than Christianity is expanding, and that’s true of every other major worldview with the exception of Islam.

There are a couple of reasons given for that. In terms of the Pew data, one of the most important of these comes down to reproduction. In the Muslim world reproduction rates are extremely high, as is the average age of the population. Those two issues, by the way, go together. The younger the population, the more likely there’s going to be a high rate of reproduction. In terms of basic numbers, we’re told that Islam is expected to grow by 73% between the years 2010 and 2050, even as the world’s population is going to grow by 37% over the same period. When it comes to Christians, the expectation is that those who identify as Christians, in terms of the global population will increase by about 35% over the same period. So to get this straight, Christian growth about 35%, growth in the population at large 37%, growth in Islam, 73%. That’s a massive fact.

In terms of projections, in 2010 there were 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, 2.17 billion Christians. But by 2050, there will be 2.76 billion Muslims and 2.92 billion Christians, again, more Christians than Muslims projected by the year 2050. But if the projections continue, all that switches by at least 2070 when Islam will have a larger number of followers than those who identify as Christians.

There are many interesting dimensions in this research. For one thing, even though there are many Middle Eastern nations that are overwhelmingly Muslim, only a small fraction of the world’s Muslim population actually lives in the Middle East, only about 20%; 80% live elsewhere. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims live in Asia and in Africa. At present, the largest population of Muslims in the world is in the nation of Indonesia, but this research indicates that that country is likely to be eclipsed by India, which will remain overwhelmingly Hindu but still have the largest Muslim population of any nation on earth.

A final look at this research also tells us something really interesting. As The Telegraph reports,

“Atheists, agnostics and non-religious people will decline from 16.4 per cent of the world’s population to 13.2 per cent by 2050, the report added, despite growing in Europe and North America.”

So let’s just ask the question, if we’ve been talking about a resurgence of agnosticism and atheism, the rise of the so-called nones or those with no religious affiliation, how in the world can they actually be a declining portion of the world’s population? The reason for that is quite simple. The exception to that will be in Europe and in North America which are continuing a secular trajectory, but the other factors that will limit the growth of the total population of unbelievers is the fact that, well you’ve guessed it, they actually are the least likely of all of these religious groups to reproduce.

Atheists have lots of ideas and no shortage of theories, but it turns out they don’t have many children. One of the reasons we should also note that Christianity is at a falling birthrate is because so many Christians, especially in secularized nations, have made some peace with the secular worldview, and we also need to note that liberal theology is similarly tied to a fall in the birth rate among Christians. The research released last week is really important. It’s expected that it will be of great interest to political and economic leaders around the world. But to Christians it should serve as a wake-up call, a wake-up call about a vast change taking place not only in the global picture, but even more importantly in our mission field.

The debate isn't over: California cities debate marijuana licensing even as it is legalized statewide

Finally, the issue of marijuana was back on the front page of several newspapers, two of them from California, yesterday’s editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Fresno Bee. First, we look to San Francisco, where it’s reported that,

“Former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and her physician husband, Dr. Floyd Huen, are turning their talents from politics to pot — and not with the greatest of results.”

The Chronicle tells us that the former Mayor and her husband “are partners in a medical marijuana dispensary looking to be licensed in San Francisco’s heavily Asian American Outer Sunset [neighborhood].”

But it’s really interesting here that the neighborhood evidently doesn’t want this medical marijuana dispensary. It’s a sign of the times that one of the arguments being made in favor of this marijuana dispensary in this neighborhood in the San Francisco area is that it will be necessary in order to demonstrate the increased diversity of the cannabis corporate community. You can see that coming. The doctor husband of the former Mayor said,

“It’s important that Asian Pacific Americans and other minorities take positions of leadership within the cannabis business community to bring greater diversity to the industry.”

But here we simply have to note that the entire story is about a predominately Asian neighborhood that doesn’t want this medical marijuana dispensary down the street from their children.

The story in yesterday’s edition of the Fresno Bee is interesting as much for its headline as anything else. The article by Rory Appleton has the headline,

“Fresno Councilman’s column on pot misstates use by children.”

This is a fact check column in the Fresno Bee and Appleton writes,

“Fresno City Councilman Garry Bredefeld announced his opposition Monday to recreational marijuana and said he will ask the City Council to impose a dispensary ban.”

We are told he’s the first councilmember in Fresno to call for such a prohibition. And then we are told that in a post he had written in order to explain his position, he made some claims, including this one,

“Since the legalization of marijuana in numerous states, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has found that marijuana use has climbed among 10th and 12th graders across the nation.”

Fact checker says that’s false. He cites research from the very same organization, that’s the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which on its website says,

“Marijuana use declined among 8th and 10th graders and remains unchanged.”

Now, which is true? Well, it probably has something to do with the actual subject category and whether it’s talking about a local or a national issue. But in any event, the headline was telling us that this Councilman’s column on marijuana misstates the use of marijuana by children. But what’s really interesting is that the article continues citing several other citations from the Councilman’s article, including the citation that,

“Proposition 64, also known as the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, not surprisingly passed statewide in November 2016 but wisely failed in Fresno County with 54% of the people voting against legalization.”

The fact checker has to say, well, that’s true.

“53 percent of Fresno voters were against Proposition 64. But what [the councilman] did not note: In the city of Fresno, 51.4 percent voted in favor of it.”

What exactly does that have to do with anything? Well, it tells us what we should already know and that is that those in urban areas are more liberal, more libertarian, more apt to vote for something like this. But you’ll simply note, it’s still only 51.4%. As the article concludes the fact checker looks at several other sections from the Councilman’s speech and basically in every case says true, true, true—true that these dispensaries can open for business if allowed on January 1, 2018; true that Proposition 64 now allows individuals 21 years or older to legally smoke marijuana; and to grow up to six plants in their home even if they are next elementary schools, it turns out that’s true; and true, additionally, Proposition 64 allows these dispensaries to advertise and promote marijuana on television, though commercials promoting smoking have been banned for decades. It turns out again that’s true. There might be some question as to whether the media will allow such advertising, especially since the use and possession of marijuana remains a federal crime, but there is no prohibition per se on such advertisements. And then finally what’s really important,

“The AAA Foundation for Highway Safety reports that deaths in marijuana-related car crashes have doubled since the State of Washington approved legalization.”

The fact checker says,

“True. The foundation’s website notes that the deaths [from smoking marijuana and driving] doubled from 2013 to 2014.”

All that’s really interesting and sufficiently concerning, but what’s really most interesting to me is the headline in the article. It’s about where the Councilman was wrong or its claim was wrong talking about rates of childhood and teenage marijuana smoking. But when you get to the article, and there is the affirmation that indeed traffic deaths from marijuana use have increased by 100% in just one year, and when it’s found to be true, the big question is, why in the world wasn’t that the headline? And when you think about it, I think we actually know the answer. There’s no question where the major media on this issue really stand.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing