Why do Christians support the killing of orphans?
From Huck Finn to Harry Potter, Oliver Twist to Bruce Wayne, Americans have always had a soft spot for orphans. So it is shocking to find, as a new poll by Pew Research reveals, that many Americans – including Christians who consider themselves to be “pro-life” – do not believe it is morally wrong for an orphan to be killed so that the child’s body parts can be used for scientific research.
The only condition they put on such killing-for-research is that the orphaned children must be in the earliest stage of human development.
According to the poll, a majority of black Protestants (58%) and three-quarters of white evangelicals (75%) believe that having an abortion is morally wrong. Yet on the issue of embryo-destructive research, only one-fourth of black Protestants (23%) believe it is morally wrong while sixty-five percent say it is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue. White evangelicals are only slightly more likely to say it is morally wrong (38%), yet almost half (49%) agree it is either not a moral issue or is morally acceptable.
Why do so many Christians who consider themselves to be pro-life support the death and destruction of humans at the beginning of life? The two primary reasons, I suspect, are that our use of scientific language and our acceptance of reproductive technologies obscures the horrific reality of orphan killing.
While pro-life Christians recognize that the term fetus is often intended to hide the fact that abortion takes the life of a child in the womb, we have all but ceded the linguistic high ground when it comes to the word embryo.
Imagine if instead of using the terms “embryo” and “cells” we used the words “orphan” and “body parts” to describe the process of cell harvesting in embryonic stem cell research: After being conceived, the child is abandoned by their parents and cryogenically frozen. The child is later thawed out in a laboratory where his or her body parts can be harvested. The researchers remove the valued parts from deep within the orphan’s body, causing him or her to die in the process.
When framed using this type of language, the cruelty of cell harvesting becomes more obvious. We recognize that it is similar to the practice in China of using the organs of executed prisoners for transplant operations. Shifting the language from the dry, technical terms of science to the common vernacular of humanity can open our eyes to the tragic actions we are considering “morally acceptable.”
While such changes in terminology can be useful, they can also obscure the true foundation for protecting this innocent life. Many Christian bioethicists realize – though they rarely mention in public – that pro-life support for protection of life from conception to natural death relies more on an emotional attachment to babies than on a biblical standard of ethics. Because pro-life Christians love babies, many are eager to protect children in every stage of development in which the child looks like a baby. Many of those same believers, however, have less of a problem with the destruction of embryos – either in the womb or in the lab – since at that stage of life a human being looks, as the pro-choicers are fond of saying, like a “clump of cells.”
A truly Christian defense of human life must be based not on what we see but on what God values. As human beings, we have an intrinsic dignity (a term derived form the Latin word for “worth”) because we are created in the image of God. Human dignity is not a characteristic we acquire, an ability we possess, or a condition we can lose. Our worth is based on our being created for the purpose of entering into covenant fellowship with our Creator. Human life, including embryonic life, must matter to us because it belongs to God.
The second reason we accept embryonic orphan-killing is because Christians have grown comfortable with in vitro fertilization (IVF) and the common, though not essential, practice of creating “excess” or “spare” embryos. IVF is inherently expensive, often costing between $10,000 and $30,000 per treatment, and the likelihood of success is dismally low. Even the best of techniques offers less than a 50 percent chance that a live birth will occur. Because of these obstacles, couples are often tempted to set aside ethical concerns in favor of methods that will increase the chances of fulfilling their desire for a child.
Ideally, a couple using IVF should decide ahead of time how many embryos to implant and attempt to create only that number of children. But because of the cost and stresses involved, many couples create more embryos than they intend to implant in the womb. Many couples may not even be aware they are creating children that will be abandoned.
Once created in the lab, these “spare” embryonic children are kept alive by freezing them at sub-zero temperatures until they can be implanted by their parents, adopted by another couple, given to researchers to be killed, or allowed to die of natural causes. (No one knows how long he or she can survive in a cryogenic state. The longest time a human embryo has been stored is 30 years.)
The implications are clear: Christians should never be willing to create and sacrifice an innocent human life or support the killing of embryonic orphans for the purposes of research. It is never God’s will that we kill one child in order to give life to another. If it cannot be done morally, then it must not be done at all.
In his book Radical, David Platt writes, “We learned that orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they’re not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes.”
A study by the Rand Corporation found that as of April 11, 2002, a total of 396,526 embryonic humans have been frozen and placed in storage in the United States. Most of them will live and die in an IVF clinic. That is almost 400,000 orphans whose names we will never know and whose faces we will never see. It is easy to pretend they are not real because we cannot hold them in our arms. But we should never forget that God holds them in his hands. Once we realize that we are supporting the human sacrifice of God’s children, everything changes.
Joe Carter is an ERLC Contributor. He is also an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. You can follow him on Twitter here: @joecarter.