Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Modern Human Experimentation [Clinton Wilcox]

Business Insider reports that scientists in Oregon have successfully edited the DNA of viable human embryos efficiently and apparently with few mistakes. The embryos in question were embryos with severe genetic defects that had no chance of developing into older human beings. And because these edits affect embryos at the genetic level, it will affect the genes that are produced in their sperm and ova, meaning that whatever changes are done to the embryo will also be done to any children that embryo eventually produces. This has led to fears that it may affect the course of human evolution. And of course, it has also spurred on fears that this will lead to “designer babies,” parents picking and choosing traits that they find desirable and eliminating traits that they don’t. Stanford University law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely, however, has tweeted that there’s a difference between embryos you implant and embryos that you edit which are “not to be transferred for possible transplantation.” Editing embryos you don’t intend to implant is not a big deal.

And showing us why calling someone a “bioethicist” does not mean they really are a reliable authority on ethics, legal scholar and “bioethicist” R. Alta Charo does not consider this to be unethical.

If you are a regular listener to our podcast, you heard my interview with Elijah Thompson of the Fetal Position podcast. We had a discussion about the ethics of genetic enhancement. You can listen to that if you’re interested on some of the discussion around genetic enhancement, itself. But this is tantamount to human experimentation. We rightly condemn the likes of Dr. Josef Mengele, who performed dangerous and painful experiments on Jews during the Holocaust, and we rightly condemn the United States Public Health Service for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments on black people. This is no different. We are dealing here with human experimentation, except that doctors are allowed to get away with it, just as Mengele and the Public Health Service were, because embryos and fetuses today are not considered legal persons. R. Alta Charo is wrong when he says that this is not unethical. In fact, this might even be worse than Mengele or the Public Health Service because at least they didn’t create Jews or black people for the express purpose of experimenting on them.

If we’re talking about genetic therapy, in which we’re only trying to treat diseases, then genetic enhancement is not ethically problematic. If you’re talking about enhancing someone beyond the natural qualities of humanity, then there may be ethical concerns. But experimenting on human beings, even one you’ve dehumanized to make it easier to sleep at night, is always seriously wrong.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Down's Syndrome and What It Means To Be Human: A Response to CBS

There has been a recent headline from CBS regarding the "disappearance" of Down's Syndrome within Iceland has been making the rounds on social media as of late, and has provoked much justifiable outrage among those within the pro-life community. I will weigh in with some thoughts here.

Ironically, the title of the article happens to be "What kind of society do you want to live in?" The authors seem to imply that the virtual disappearance of Down's Syndrome within the country of Iceland is a good thing, and give a positive tone throughout the article.

The first line reads:
"With the rise of prenatal screening tests across Europe and the United States, the number of babies born with Down syndrome has significantly decreased, but few countries have come as close to eradicating Down syndrome births as Iceland.
It is here that we get a glimpse of what the authors are trying to hide within the piece while trying to shed this statistical outcome in a very positive light: The reason we are close to eradicating Down's Syndrome in Iceland is because we are "terminating" the individuals with the condition prior to birth.

Indeed, the article is one massive exercise in "begging the question"; that is, it assumes the unborn are not human, and can therefore be "terminated" prior to the full realization of the condition. To illustrate this concept, imagine what would happen if a story was run on the virtual disappearance of child abuse directed at disabled children within Iceland. Child abuse rates were at virtually zero. Then suppose we take a look at the reasons why the numbers were so low: Parents were being allowed to kill their children all the way up to age 8, as long as it was done quickly and quietly, with the advice of the family doctor. Would there be outrage? There'd better be. And yet, when it comes to these children prior to their births, CBS writes a piece discussing this idea as if it were good news.

In fact, one of the hospital staff members who helps counsel the women regarding the genetic test, Helga Sol Olafsdottir, makes this very point in the piece:

"We don't look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication... preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder -- that's so black and white. Life isn't black and white. Life is grey."
The "life is grey" assertion is absurd. Would anyone apply that to the idea of parents eliminating their toddlers in order to prevent "suffering" for the child or the family members? I think we would view such a person as a moral monster. And yet, we do it with the unborn human, simply because we assume that being unborn justifies killing them somehow.

There is no difference in kind between these children before birth and after birth. The only differences are the child's size, level of development(which can determine your currently exercisable abilities before birth, as well as far after), the environment that they currently reside in, and the degree to which they depend on those around them for their immediate needs. As Stephen Schwartz has highlighted, none of these differences really matter in the long run, as they all come in degrees, and can come or go through the course of our lifetimes. If these differences really do in fact matter, then human equality is a dangerous, repressive myth that needs to be abolished. That is absurd, and terrifying to think about.

How then should a civil society respond to something like Down's Syndrome? Probably by responding the same way we should for anyone else: With love, care, and respect for their shared humanity. Killing them before they are even aware of concepts like love and respect is never going to be the right answer.

In fact, a recent video titled "NOT SPECIAL NEEDS" illustrates this plainly. Advocates for those with Down's Syndrome pose a very important question to the audience: What "special needs" do these individuals really need? How about the same opportunities as the rest of us? And doesn't that include the right to live, just like everyone else? Anything less is not "pro-choice", but is instead the very bigotry that the West has worked tirelessly to eradicate, and has failed many times in doing so. Indeed, it asserts that we can know better what life with Down's Syndrome will be like than the individuals who have the condition do, and will impose our view of what it means to be human on them by killing them before they can even know what is happening.

"What kind of society do you want to live in?"

You'd better be darn sure you know the answer to that.

Professors Arguing Badly [Clinton Wilcox]

There’s a viral video going around of actor James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson in a discussion about abortion with professor of philosophy at Princeton Elizabeth Harman. This is part of a new YouTube series by Franco, Philosophy Time.

Her argument is that if we abort the fetus before it is conscious and has experiences, then it is not morally bad to do so. How does she defend her argument for the permissibility of early abortions? She asserts that when it comes to the early fetus (and philosophers tend to use the catch-all term “fetus” to refer to the unborn organism at all stages of pregnancy, even though technically it’s not a fetus until about two months in utero), there are two different kinds of beings. Fetuses who have a future have moral status, and fetuses who don’t have a future, either because of miscarriage or because the mother kills the fetus in abortion, do not have moral status.

If you are perplexed by Harmon’s defense of her argument, you’re not alone. Franco’s expression tells it all. As Franco said, that’s something that you can only judge in hindsight. By Harmon’s criterion for personhood, that having a future as a person is what grants moral status, you can’t know whether or not any given fetus is a person because you can’t know whether or not that fetus has a future. And to argue that we know which fetuses are not persons because we know the mother is going to take her in and abort her, as Harmon does, is a clear case of ad hoc reasoning to justify her position on abortion. Her argument seems, prima facie, to be that whether or not a woman decides to abort is what determines whether or not she has moral status.

Harmon tries to save her view with a couple of caveats: 1) If you had been aborted while you were yet a fetus, then it wouldn’t have been wrong because you wouldn’t have had moral status, not being the kind of fetus that grows up into a person. So moral status is a contingent matter (i.e. contingent on whether or not your mother had aborted you). 2) It’s not looking at it correctly that each fetus has moral status which is taken away when the mother aborts him. There’s nothing about the present state of the fetus that grants it moral status. It’s not conscious and is not having any experiences. It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. Its future is what endows it with moral status. So when you abort him you’re not depriving him of something he independently has.

Neither one of these caveats save her view. It’s just as ad hoc as it was before. Caveat one, that if you had been aborted as a fetus it wouldn’t have been wrong is just another ad hoc explanation to justify her first ad hoc explanation. The only reason that fetus won’t grow up to be a person is because he is being prevented from doing so by his mother and the abortionist. If left alone, he will grow up into an infant and an adult. Even fetuses that miscarry have this same potential; it’s just being cut short by an external factor, just as an infant who dies of SIDS still has the potential to become an adult, it’s just being prevented by some unknown factor. Her second caveat, that it’s your future that grounds your moral status, abortion isn’t taking it away, again fails to take into consideration that all fetuses have that future, if not being prevented from doing so. These two caveats do not make her case any stronger.

Liz Harmon’s colleague, Robert P. George, stated on a Facebook status that Harmon’s view does have one redeeming quality: it does seem to explain the disconnect between a woman who aborts seeing her fetus as nothing but a “clump of cells” but a woman who wants the fetus seeing him as her baby, her child. But Harmon’s argument for abortion is so incoherent it’s a wonder why she doesn’t abandon it for another colleague, Peter Singer’s, better, albeit unsuccessful, argument for abortion. Ah, well. As has been well observed, there is no position so outlandish it has not been seriously defended by some philosophers.

That being said, another philosopher, Frank Beckwith, also on Facebook, pointed out that Elizabeth Harman has defended her argument in more detail in an article she's written and we should engage with the strongest version of her argument that she's put forth. So I will read Harman's article and respond to it in a future post. Stay tuned for that.

Have you seen this video? What did you think of it? Let us know below!

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Miscarriage Breakthrough [Clinton Wilcox]

A few months ago, Nathan, Aaron, and I started up a podcast called Pro-Life Thinking. If you haven't listened in yet, I'd like to encourage you to do so. You can listen to us at BlogTalkRadio, or you can find us on iTunes. We've also now got the podcast uploaded onto the website, so you can find us at the LTI homepage. Hover your mouse cursor over the "media" tag and then click "podcasts" in the drop-down menu. There's been some good news that's come out of Australia, as reported by the New Zealand Herald.


Scientists at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney have made a breakthrough discovery that is expected to save thousands of lives by preventing miscarriages and multiple types of birth defects. Professor Sally Dunwoodie has discovered a cause not only of miscarriages but also of heart, spinal, kidney, and cleft palate problems. The researchers discovered that the lack of a vital molecule, NAD, prevents a child’s organs from developing properly while in the womb. After 12 years of research, these scientists have found that NAD deficiency can be cured by a dietary supplement of B3, also known as niacin. The next step is to develop a diagnostic test to measure NAD levels and see which women are at the greatest risk of having a baby with a birth defect to ensure they get a sufficient amount of B3. And while many women have already been treated, there is still work to do in studying the levels of niacin throughout pregnancy and when the organs are forming in the embryo. So the doctors do not recommend taking any more niacin than what is already present in a pregnancy multivitamin until further work is done.


It pretty much goes without saying that this is an exciting breakthrough. The New Zealand Article overstated its connection with vegemite, but we may be looking at a future in which miscarriages and certain types of birth defects are much less of a risk.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Katerine: Human Being or “Human Doing”? [Michael Spencer]

My daughter, Katerine, was born with Cerebral Palsy. As a result, she is unable to walk, has extremely limited use of her hands, and at 17, functions mentally at the level of a four year old.

When Barb and I take Katerine to a restaurant or anywhere in public, perfect strangers frequently open doors for her. At concerts and sporting events she is sometimes ushered to the front to take the best seat in the house. Why such preferential treatment for a child bereft of any political power or celebrity status? It is because God has placed in each of us a moral intuition that wells up when we see need, vulnerability or handicap. We naturally want to help. In fact, the greater the need, the greater our urge to offer assistance.

Unfortunately, not everyone responds to the voice of moral intuition. Katerine’s biological father didn’t. He abandoned her on the side of the road at 6:00am in Guatemala City (her birthplace) to fend for herself at 6 years of age. She was eventually discovered by a security guard and spent the entire day, until 10:00pm, in the police department before an orphanage was found to take her. This is where she spent the next 3 years of her life. Katerine’s father’s actions are revolting. In many wombs, however, she would be aborted for the very same reason strangers now open doors for her: she is handicapped. Cerebral Palsy has severely arrested Katerine’s level of development, rendering her disposable in the minds of many.

Today, many defend the abortion choice by drawing an artificial line between “humanness” and “personhood”, arguing that it is morally permissible to kill humans so long as they’re not actual “persons.” And when does a human become a “person”? According to many it is when he/she reaches a certain level of development. When does this happen? Good luck getting a straight answer from abortion supporters; they don’t agree on which “standard” confers personhood status. One says it occurs when measurable brain activity is detected. Another says it happens at viability – that moment when the embryo could survive outside of the mother. Still another insists the embryo must be free of any fetal abnormality before the honor of “personhood” is bestowed on her.

In short, these tiny womb-dwellers are only deemed worthy of life if they pass whatever arbitrary test the big and powerful establish for them. If they don’t, they’re crushed like vermin and disposed of like trash. Conveniently for the abortion industry, none of the above-mentioned milestones are compelling enough to build consensus among abortion supporters, which means none of these tests make any difference in the end. The only real “test” is whether or not mom wants her baby.

Although we undergo a myriad of developmental changes from the time we are conceived until the time we die, our nature never changes. We are the same person now as we were then. As Randy Alcorn says,  “Something nonhuman doesn’t become human by getting older and bigger. Whatever is human is human from the beginning.” He’s right. Katerine’s disabilities do not alter her human nature, nor do they diminish her value. She is intrinsically valuable and Barb and I are blessed to be her parents.

Clinton Wilcox, who serves on our staff at Life Training Institute recently wrote, “The question of when human life begins is not a difficult one. It only becomes difficult if you want to justify killing people.” How true. Katerine escaped the womb with her cerebral palsy undetected. Many others aren’t so lucky.

We’re not “human doings,” we are human beings. In other words, Katerine is valuable, not because of what she can do, but simply because of what she is: God’s image-bearer. This makes all the difference.

Let's apply our compassion consistently across the spectrum to all human beings.  Recognizing the worth of all humans as God's image bearers, may the same hands that would open a door for a young girl in a wheel chair hold back the door of death as it slams on her no-less-human neighbors in the womb.