Basic Bioethics: An A to Z glossary on ‘making life’

October 19, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in a monthly series on what Christians should know about bioethics.

In this series we’ll be covering three broad areas of bioethics categorized as “making life” (beginning of life issues, such as reproductive technologies), “taking life” (end of life issues, such as abortion and euthanasia), and “faking life” (the melding of human biology with machines or other species).

Each category comes with a dizzying array of terms, some that are technical and some that are common but whose meanings differ from normal usage. Since understanding the ethical issues requires understanding how the terms are used, we need to develop a glossary of terms. The following are common terms related to “making life.” Whenever the meanings of terms are generally disputed, I’ve relied on the common understanding used by the majority of evangelical Christian bioethicists:

An A to Z glossary of terms related to 'making life.'

Artificial insemination – the intentional introduction of sperm into a female's uterus or cervix for the purpose of achieving a pregnancy by means other than sexual intercourse. (Source)

Assisted reproductive technologies – the term for all techniques involving the direct manipulation of human eggs, sperm, and/or embryos outside the human body. Sometimes abbreviated as A.R.T. or simply as reproductive technologies. The most common form of assisted reproductive technology is in vitro fertilization. (Source)

Conception – the fertilization of a female gamete (egg) by the male gamete (sperm), which creates the life of new human being. Because fertilization is a process, the term conception is sometimes used to refer to the beginning of the fertilization process when the sperm and egg are fused, the end of fertilization (syngamy), full genetic expression (when the human being has reached the stage of being 8-cells), or implantation (around 7-10 days after fusion). (Source)

Donor gametes – the donation of gametes (either sperm or eggs) by a third-party. Donor games are often combined with the gametes of one member of an infertile couple to ensure that one parent has a genetic link to the child.

Ectopic pregnancy – a pregnancy where the embryo implants outside the uterus (usually in the fallopian tube), where the baby will not live. (Source)

Embryo – In human development, the stage of development between 5 and 11 weeks.

Embryo cryopreservation – the process of preserving embryos created during IVF at sub-zero temperatures for potential, later implantation.

Fertilized egg – the term is sometimes used to designate the time period (about 20 hours) after the sperm has penetrated the egg but before syngamy has occurred. However, the term is often mistakenly used to refer to the zygotes or embryos, which have already fused and the egg (female gamete) no longer exists as a separate entity.

Fertilization – the process that begins when the sperm penetrates the egg and ends at syngamy.

Fetus – In human development, the stage of development from the twelfth week until birth.

Gamete – a type of cell that fuses with another cell during conception to create a new and distinct human being. The female gamete is called the oocyte (ovum or egg) while the male gamete is the sperm.

Gestation – the time between conception and birth, during which the embryo or fetus is developing in the uterus. Also known as pregnancy. (Source)

Human being – an individual human that is created at conception (the beginning of fertilization) and exists throughout every stage of development (e.g., infancy, adolescence, adulthood).

Implantation – the stage of pregnancy at which the zygote adheres to the wall of the uterus.

Infertility – the inability either to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse or to carry a conception beyond the first trimester (twelve menstrual weeks). (Source)

In Vitro Fertilization – the use of assisted reproductive technologies to manipulate the gametes into the process of fertilization that occurs outside of the womb (“in vitro” means “in glass” as opposed to “in vivo”, within a living tissue system).

Miscarriage – the unintentional ending of a pregnancy prior to 20 weeks gestation. The term miscarriage is often preferred to the medical term is “spontaneous abortion,” because of the association of with an “elective abortion.”

Oocyte – the technical term for the human female gamete, often colloquially referred to as the “egg.”

Oocyte cryopreservation – the process of preserving female gametes (i.e., eggs) at sub-zero temperatures for potential, later conception using assisted reproductive technologies.

Ovarian stimulation – the use of medication to stimulate ovulation, either to correct infertility or as a precursor to in vitro fertilization. (Source)

Personhood  – Most Christians believe that all human beings are persons, and thus when conception creates a new life what is created is both a human being and a human person (Psalm 139:13-16). The secular view, however, is that personhood is not conveyed to all human beings automatically and is based on either a later state of human development (e.g., implantation, birth, etc.) or after meeting certain functional criteria (e.g., viability outside the womb, the ability to feel pain, etc.).

Secondary infertility – a term applied to couples who have successfully given birth to one or more children and then are unable to conceive over one year’s time. (Source)

Spermatozoa – the technical term for the human male gamete, often referred to simply as “sperm.”

Sperm cryopreservation – the process of preserving male gametes (i.e., sperm) at sub-zero temperatures for potential, later conception using assisted reproductive technologies.

Stillbirth – the death of the child during or before birth. In the U.S., a baby that dies before birth but after having passed the 20-week mark is considered stillborn. (Source)

Surrogacy – the term for when one woman agrees to carry a child through pregnancy and deliver it on behalf of another person. The surrogate may either be the child’s genetic mother (traditional or genetic surrogacy) or carries a child that has been implanted into her for which she has no genetic relationship (partial surrogacy).

Surrogate mother – a woman who engages in surrogacy on behalf of another. Sometimes called a gestational carrier. If the woman receives compensation for carrying the child it is considered a commercial surrogacy. If she receives no compensation (other than medical costs, etc.) it is considered an altruistic surrogacy. (Source)

Syngamy – the stage of fertilization when the gametes have completed fused and combined their DNA. The step usually occurs about 20 hours after the sperm has penetrated the egg and started the fertilization process.

Zygote – In human development, the stage of a human between the beginning of conception (a single cell being) until it becomes an embryo (i.e., about the fifth week of development).

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24