By / Aug 20

Editor's note: ERLC and Focus on the Family are hosting the first ever Evangelicals for Life event next year in Washington DC on January 21-22nd, featuring Russell Moore, Roland Warren, David Platt, Eric Metaxes, Kelly Rosati, Ron Sider and others.

By now, we’re familiar with the chilling scenes from the secretly-recorded videos about Planned Parenthood. Of the countless questions that remain unanswered about these videos and the issues they raise, there is at least one that seems to cry out for an answer: By what kind of moral reasoning are these  actions being justified?

This is not a rhetorical question intended to incite outrage (although outrage is certainly an appropriate response to the killing of unborn babies). It is a meaningful question intended to lay bare the ethical disparity between those who defend the rights of unborn children and those who think it’s legitimate to kill them.

Let's be clear: the question is not a matter of whether the unborn child is a human being. Instead, the question is what gives that human the right to life? How a person answers that question wields consequences that reach beyond the gestational period — into infancy and even old age.

Of course, I don’t claim to know what moral reasoning is happening (or not happening) inside the heads of abortionists. But I am aware that the moral justification for these kind of killings has been successfully popularized by a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. The author of fifteen books (and coauthor and coeditor of many more), he has been considered the most influential living ethicist today. Not long ago, I began to study his writings. I discovered his reasoning to be clear and consistent, his writing style compelling and his conclusions — horrifying.

His name is Peter Singer, and Planned Parenthood — conducting an average of 300,000 abortions every year — has been vigorously advancing his ideals.

The moral reasoning that justifies the killing of babies takes three simple steps, which Singer explains in his book Practical Ethics:

[Step One] The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; [Step Two] it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. [Step Three] Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.

Step One: Discard the sanctity of human life

The first step requires discarding Scripture’s conception of what it means to be a “person” (by “person” we mean someone whose life is uniquely valuable). According to Scripture, someone possesses personhood simply because he or she is human — the only species created in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). From this simple fact, we derive the doctrine of the sanctity of life — that human life ought to be defended in a way that uniquely differs from the lives of other creatures. But in order to justify the killing of an unborn human, this doctrine must be rejected. Indeed, throughout his writings, Singer radiates his disgust for the idea of the sanctity of human life. To him, it is “untenable” and should be “abandoned.”

Step Two: Define “personhood” in terms of rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness

Having done away with the Scripture’s conception of personhood, the next step is a bit trickier — to come up with a different criteria for what it means to be a person. Singer’s solution is that “characteristics like rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness” should serve as the criteria for personhood. Anyone who is unfortunate enough to lack these characteristics doesn’t have the status as a person, and therefore, doesn’t have the unique right to live.

This bold redefinition forces a dramatic shift for ethical choices since it allows some animals (the great apes, chimpanzees, and perhaps some whales and dolphins) to join the ranks as persons. On the other hand, it excludes some humans, such as the profoundly retarded, those in a persistent vegetative state, and even healthy infants.

Step Three: Assert that killing unborn babies is morally justifiable.

Step three is barely a step at all. It’s the logical conclusion of steps one and two. Singer puts it concisely: “Killing [infants], therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.” Or, as he states elsewhere: “The main point is clear: killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Up to what age may an infant be justifiably killed? Since his definition for personhood is rather arbitrary, so is the age up to which an infant may be justifiably killed. Singer suggests up to 28 days after birth.

Besides this horrendous conclusion, we should be aware that this moral reasoning leads inevitably to other forms of killing, including mass murder. Of course, Singer anticipated this “slippery slope” objection and spends several pages arguing why genocide need not follow from his logic. Near the end of the chapter “Taking Life: Humans,” he writes, “All of this is not to deny that departing from the traditional sanctity-of-life ethic carries with it a very small but nevertheless finite risk of unwanted consequences.”

In the time since that sentence was published, the “very small but nevertheless finite risk of unwanted consequences” has been the lives of  hundreds of thousands of human babies. If that’s not mass murder, I don’t know what is.

How does the killing of babies get justified? It starts when we jettison Scripture’s doctrine of the sanctity of life.

After that, it’s a free-for-all. It just depends on who has the power to say who gets to live and who doesn’t.

By / Jul 30

Several recent videos have revealed Planned Parenthood executives discussing the disposition of fetal body parts, such as livers, hearts, and limbs, which were collected after abortions. The videos have caused many people to question the morality of a process they had previously been completely unaware even existed. Here is what you should know about the ethics and legality of fetal tissue donation:

What is fetal tissue donation?

A human fetus (Latin for “offspring”) is the stage of human development from the embryo stage (the end of the eighth week after conception, when the major structures have formed) until birth. When the fetus dies, either naturally or by abortion, the tissue (including intact organs) can be legally donated for research purposes.


Where do fetal tissue donations go?

Medical researchers obtain fetal tissue from a variety of sources including, hospitals, nonprofit tissue banks (one of which is funded by the National Institutes of Health), and local abortion clinics. Often a third-party vendor serves as the go-between, acquiring, screening, and transporting the tissue from the source of origination to the research lab.

Is fetal tissue donation ethical?

The morality of fetal tissue donation primarily hinges on questions about how the child died and the informed consent of the donating parents.

Most Christian ethicists agree that fetal tissue donation is not inherently unethical if the tissue was obtained from a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy in which the fetus implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus) and was willingly donated by the parent. Such donations would be similar to a parent agreeing to donate the organs of an infant or a child that had died by natural causes.

The donations are morally tainted, however, when the tissue is derived from a fetus that has been killed in the womb. Allowing and condoning such donations makes us indirectly morally complicit in the act of abortion, and conveys a sense of approval for an ongoing regime that sanctions the killing of the unborn. As bioethicists James Bopp and James Burtchaell have said, “whatever the researcher's intentions may be, by entering into an institutionalized partnership with the abortion industry as a supplier of preference, he or she becomes complicit, though after the fact, with the abortions that have expropriated the tissue for his or her purposes.”

Similarly, there is disagreement about the role of informed consent. There is an almost universal agreement that if a fetus died of natural causes that a parent should be able to donate fetal tissue unless the other parent objects. Additionally, many also contend, as James F. Childress notes, that, “the pregnant woman's consent should be necessary for donation—that is, the father should not be able to authorize the donation by himself, and the mother should always be asked before fetal tissue is used.”

There is no unanimity of agreement, though, on the issue of consent when the tissue is obtained as the result of an abortion. Some ethicists believe that when the woman has an abortion she gives up moral (if not legal) right to act as guardian and proxy of the cadaveric remains. Others contend that since the dead fetus has no rights or interests that need protecting, the maternal woman maintains both the moral and legal right to decide, by informed consent, how the tissue should be disposed.


How is fetal tissue used?

Fetal tissue—obtained both ethically and unethically—has been used to develop life-saving vaccines. The 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for instance, was awarded for a polio vaccine that was developed from fetal kidney cells. And fetal cells were used in the production of a widely used vaccine for measles. In both cases, the tissue was obtained from spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies. Cells from aborted fetuses, however, have been used in a number of more recent vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis, measles, mumps, poliomyelitis, rabies, rubella, and small pox. (For more on the ethics of vaccines, see this article.)

Fetal cell were also used in the 1980s and 1990s for experimental treatments on diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. But because studies showed they weren’t effective, research using fetal cells for biomedical treatments has largely been abandoned.

“We don't use a lot fetal tissue today, and when it’s used it’s mainly for studying some fetal disease and fetal development,” says Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s not a key part or major part of research in the U.S.”

Fetal tissue from aborted fetuses has also been used in cosmetics and anti-aging creams.


What laws cover the transfer of fetal tissue?

The transfer of human cadaveric tissue, including fetal tissue, is governed by the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), which was adopted by all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

An Institute of Medicine report notes that, in general, the UAGA permits either parent, subject to the known objection of the other, to donate fetal tissue, following spontaneous or deliberate abortions, for research, education, or transplantation. However, some states restrict the use of fetal materials following induced abortions in some research. Federal regulations permit research “involving the dead fetus, macerated fetal material, or cells, tissue, or organs excised from a dead fetus . . . in accordance with any applicable State or local laws regarding such activities” (45 CFR 46.210).

Is it illegal to sell fetal tissue?

It is illegal to directly sell fetal tissue. However, companies involved in the acquisition, transfer, and disposition of the tissue can be compensated for their efforts. Two laws directly cover this issue.

42 U.S. Code 274e prohibits the purchase of human organs, including any organs derived from a fetus, for the purposes of human transplantation. Because the fetal tissue is likely to be used for research purposes rather than be transplanted into a living human, this law most likely does not apply.

42 U.S. Code 289g covers the prohibitions regarding human fetal tissue and states that, “It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”

In each of these laws, the term “valuable consideration” does not include “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”

42 U.S. Code 289g prevents the solicitation of fetal tissue for transplantation and the “solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses gestated for research purposes.” What this means is that a buyer cannot solicit fetal tissue for transplantation or use tissue from a fetus that is known to have been created solely for the purpose of aborting the baby and extracting its tissue and/or organs.

But this seems to cover only human tissue that was acquired when the pregnancy was “deliberately initiated to provide such tissue.” Tissue donated after an abortion for research purposes is completely legal under federal law.

By / Jun 2

I remember noticing her frantically walking through our yard looking for something—or someone. Opening the front door, I went to her, eager to help. “Did you lose someone?” I asked. She looked about my age, and I was worried maybe she was missing her child.

“Yes! Have you seen her? Normally she’s not gone this long. I’ve called and called, but still no response. She’s white all over, with a black spot on her tail.”

“Oh.” I said, relieved. “From the look on your face, I thought you were missing your child.”

“She is like my child!” she said, intensely, earnestly. “Please let me know if you see her.”

After she left, I prayed with our kids that she would find her cat. And then we had a conversation about what would cause someone to treat a pet like a child. It’s obedient stewardship of God’s creation to love and care for pets. But, it seems increasingly common for couples to forego children, only to treat their dogs and cats like they would their own offspring. In fact, in some towns, pet boutiques are far more common than shops for children; parks are for pets only; and the pressure’s on to keep things quiet and child-free.

Enter Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, a collection of 16 essays by “literary luminaries” who are defensively child-free. The book promo says it “makes a thoughtful and passionate case for why parenthood is not the only path in life, taking our parent-centric, kid-fixated, baby-bump-patrolling culture to task in the process.” Given our increasing obsession with pets in America, our fixation on autonomy, or desire to sever every connection between sex and procreation, it’s almost nonsensical that a group of elite writers would feel the need to defend their decision to forgo babies. And yet, they do.

Where, I wonder, is this parent-centric, kid-fixated world these writers feel so pressured by? Los Angeles? Brooklyn? New York City? Venice Beach? It’s hard to imagine the neighborhoods these award-winning writers occupy being overrun by the “overwhelming cultural pressure of parenthood” their book claims to counter.

Even in our Bible-belty town, I’ve felt out-of-place entering a restaurant, market, or boutique with our four children. And elsewhere, especially while awkwardly guiding our four kids through first-class on our way to coach seats on a crowded airplane, I’ve wished they had t-shirts that reminded people simply, “You were this age once.” I know I’m not alone.

As far back as 2008, the National Marriage Project’s report, “Life Without Children,” warned that America was shifting away from supporting parents in the hard and essential work of raising the next generation. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote,

“We are in the midst of a profound change in American life. Demographically, socially and culturally, the nation is shifting from a society of child-rearing families to a society of child-free adults. The repercussions of this change are apparent in nearly every domain of American life.”

Last week a story in The Atlantic added more evidence. In “The Childless Millennial,” Olga Khazan summarized findings from the Urban Institute that “today's twenty-something women have been slower to have children than any previous generation.” Far from calling millennials to get with the program and absent any “pressure to parent,” this story said the significant downturn is nothing to worry about.

Having a child and giving yourself to parenting requires a level of self-sacrifice rarely endorsed, let alone imposed, in our day. According to Popenoe and Whitehead,

Indeed, child-rearing values—sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity—seem stale and musty by comparison to the “child-free” values. Nor does the bone-wearying and time-consuming commitments of the child-rearing years comport with a culture of fun and freedom. Indeed, what it takes to raise children is almost the opposite of what popularly defines a satisfying adult life.

Yet for all this change away from children and toward an adult-focused culture, especially in the entertainment arena, the authors of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed are defensive against something—or someone. On some level, it seems as if they feel the need to justify their decision not to have children.

Someone once sacrificed for you

I think their angst points to the metaphysical musing: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? The practical answer is that you’re here because your parents, in a moment of passion, conceived you. Someone carried you, bore you, nursed you, clothed you, taught you, and hopefully, loved you. No one can completely forget that someone once sacrificed so we could be here. Every person owes their life to someone else. Someone once given life, who refuses the miracle to another, must, at some level, feel the weight of their decision.

This is one of those truths we can’t unlearn. We can deny them, but they persist. They’re the things written on our hearts, not with random evolutionary etchings, but by the One who formed and fashioned us with the ability and the obligation to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). We cannot escape our witness-bearing conscience that accuses or excuses our every decision (Rom. 2:15).

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a piercing example of people trying to quiet their consciences. I’m not saying that everyone who doesn’t have children has consciously made the decision not to. Many childless men and women long to have children but face circumstances beyond their control. But regardless of our circumstances, we must continue to be a voice for children; for having them and for training them in the fear of the Lord.

We should also pray for the authors of this book, and those who will read it looking for encouragement to stay the self-seeking path. May they come to know the One who said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

We need children because we’re selfish

I’ve seen plenty of selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed parents, including the one who stares back at me in the mirror every morning. The childless don’t have a monopoly on those adjectives. People generally don’t have babies because they’re altruistic. A big reason God gives us children is to grow us up. Scripture says children are a blessing. What it doesn’t say is that children will always make you happy or fulfilled. We need children precisely because we are selfish.

The incredible challenges that come with parenting can completely undo you, but as Allan Carlson writes in The Natural Family, it “opens the portals to the good life, to true happiness, even to bliss. . . . Kindness begets kindness, shaping an economy of love. Kindred share all they have, without expecting any return, only to receive more than they could ever have imagined.”

There’s joy you can only know on the other side of selfless sacrifice. Getting people to affirm being selfish, shallow and self-absorbed will never compare.

Editor's Note: ERLC and Focus on the Family are hosting the first ever Evangelicals for Life event next year in Washington DC on January 21-22nd, featuring Russell Moore, Roland Warren, David Platt, Eric Metaxes, Kelly Rosati, Ron Sider and others. 

By / Apr 14

During our wedding, Steve’s dad Jim encouraged us to be open to having babies. As the pastor who performed our ceremony, he was also a grandpa who knew the joys of being in the lives of his grandchildren. “Children need grandparents who can get down on the floor to play with them,” he said, “and still be able to get back up!”

But his prompting wasn’t enough. There are a hundred plus reasons to delay having babies, several of which Steve and I used to rationalize our decision to postpone starting a family, even though we both turned 27 a month after our wedding. We thought we could hit snooze on my biological clock without consequence.

A recent article in Time magazine, “The Grandparent Deficit,” reveals we weren’t the only ones thinking that way. Columnist Susanna Schrobsdorff says of herself and her sister,

Somehow, while we were worrying about our biological clocks and our careers, it didn’t occur to us that another biological clock was ticking down: that of our parents’ health. And while medical science keeps coming up with new ways to prolong fertility, thwarting the frailties of old age is harder.

Writing from the vantage point of visiting her ailing father, Schrobsdorff describes the scene before her,

A few months ago I was sitting in the vast dining room of an assisted-living home in Washington, D.C., watching my 5-year-old niece bounce like a pinball between tables of seniors. It was a startling sight – that small, smooth blond blur amid a hundred crinkly faces. Her audience, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, grinned as she navigated all the parked walkers, canes and wheelchairs as if it were a playground.

Couples will often do the math for how old they’ll be when their children hit certain milestones; how old they’ll be when their kids graduate from high-school, for example. But they should also do the math for the grandparents. Given the growing trend toward later childbearing, many would-be grandparents will be too frail and aged to do much of anything active when their children’s children finally arrive, if they’re even still around to meet them.

Schrobsdorff says her niece and two daughters “are among a growing number of kids who will see their grandparents primarily as people in need of care rather than as caretakers.” It’s not just free babysitting that’s on the line, however. Ailing grandparents who are too feeble to play with their grandchildren, or too beset with dementia to recognize them, is a tragic loss physically. But what about the spiritual cost? How many little ones will never hear grandpa and grandma tell the stories of God’s faithfulness over the course of their long lives?

In our culture, most young couples need more than a subtle nudge from a magazine article to start having babies. In our case, it took the bold questions of an older married couple, Hu and Mary Morken, who weren’t just casually interested in when we thought we’d have kids. They wanted to know why we were weren’t having babies right now. Mary was pointed: “What makes you think you’ll be fertile when you’re finally ready?” she asked. “You can’t assume you’re in control of when you can have kids.”

The Morkens were bullish on family. So was my father-in-law. But he was also dying from the effects of lifelong diabetes. He knew his ailing heart would likely cut his life short, and he didn’t have the luxury of waiting a long time to meet the next generation. He lived with an awareness of his mortality that those who are healthy pretend away. And so he spoke up.

His declining health gave him an urgency uncommon among other parents his age. If he were to meet his grandchildren, they’d have to be born soon. His prophetic bent proved true: He died at age 56 of congestive heart failure. Jim and Hu and Mary went boldly where few in our individualistic culture dare. And I’ll be forever glad they did.

Hu urged us to, “Budget for everything except kids. Kids aren’t just another expense, they’re wealth.” His conviction was called for. His theology sound. Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” The blessings don’t just flow forward to the parents of babies. They also flow back to grandparents. Proverbs 17:6 says, “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged…”

Most parents want the crown of grandchildren. But many also believe it's not their place to advocate for them early in their children's' marriages beyond an occasional joke or subtle jibe. I’m glad Steve’s Dad wasn’t one of them. God used him, along with the Morkens, to challenge our timeline that saw career-building, house-buying and school-loan-eliminating as most important. Their engaging questions and conversation were the beginning of us saying yes to babies.

By / Oct 28

Some of you may have seen the 1997 movie ‘Gattaca’, which portrays a futuristic society where children can be ‘tailored’ to their parents’ specifications. The height (want a basketballer?), eye colour (just like dad?), or whatever other characteristics will help junior on his way. The geneticist in the film suggests “You want to give your child the best possible start. Believe me, we have enough imperfections built in already. The child doesn't need any additional burdens. Keep in mind this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”

Of course, this is science fiction, but the idea of genetic superiority is alive and well in IVF clinics. We cannot select ‘in’ the desired genetic traits, but we can select them ‘out’. Family history of cystic fibrosis? No problem, modern science can ensure that none of your IVF offspring will carry the gene. It sounds like a wonderful new cure. It isn’t.

Routine genetic screening?

Genetic screening of embryos is common in IVF treatment and may soon become routine. Screening embryos is done by a method called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). PGD is particularly recommended for couples with a known family history of genetic disease or those who have had recurrent miscarriages. It involves removing one or two cells from an embryo just a few days old and examining them under the microscope to determine their genetic make-up. A recent development called Comparative Genomic Hybridisation (CGH) allows for rapid testing of all 24 chromosomes in the embryo so that the results are known before an embryo is transferred to the uterus. An enormous number of genetic and chromosomal abnormalities can now be detected, as well as characteristics such as the gender of the embryo. This development has improved IVF success rates and allowed parents an unprecedented amount of control over reproduction.

Of course we would all agree that wanting to have healthy children is a good and normal desire.

Asking complex ethical questions

But PGD also raises ethical questions. Questions that are harder to ask when we recognize the goodness of the goal that is pursued, but nonetheless important as we look to the future of society.

What usually isn’t mentioned in the blurb recommending this intervention is the way by which the birth rate of babies carrying defective genes is reduced. It is by making sure none of the affected embryos are given a chance to develop. After all embryos are screened, only the embryos with the desired traits are transferred to a uterus. The rest are discarded. When I mentioned this technique to other parents at my children’s school the reaction was immediate—great! who doesn’t want to give their child the best chance in life? No thought was given to the embryonic waste. The lack of recognition for the humanity of human embryos is so endemic in our society that this method is sometimes recommended for parents who want to avoid abortion of an affected fetus screened after normal conception.

But there are other issues. This technology doesn’t come cheap. IVF itself costs around $15,000 a try and PGD adds another $10,000-$15,000 on top of that. Are we moving towards a time when good health is the ultimate luxury item? Because it is not just childhood diseases that are screened out with PGD. We now can, and do, screen for diseases that may not appear until adulthood, such as breast cancer. Now, if a child is born now and the breast cancer does not appear for another 50 years, that is time enough for significant improvement in breast cancer therapy. Maybe even discovery of a cure. And looking at my own friends who have developed cancer in their 50s, I would hesitate to say that the disease-free decades were not worthwhile. But now we are discarding these embryos too.

So who decided what we can screen for? Who decides what is normal and what is a disease? Currently it seems that it’s a free-for-all. There are now documented cases of deaf parents requesting a deaf child so their offspring can enjoy what they see as the rich culture of the non-hearing community. I don’t deny their sincerity. But we would usually consider deafness to be a handicap, wouldn’t we? We do our best when disability occurs, but deliberately choosing deafness? Is this what we want for future generations?

But personally the selection I have the most problem with is PGD for ‘family balancing’. This entails selection of the preferred gender of embryo and discarding all others, even if they are perfectly normal. So the parents can have one of each.

We can’t earn our value

Discarding an embryonic human because it does not have the characteristics desired by its parents is discriminatory and not in accord with how the Bible instructs us to treat one who is made in the image of God. Inherent in the devaluing of imperfect nascent humans is the idea that physical perfection makes one more valuable. But in Biblical terms, our value is not based on our characteristics or capabilities. It lies in the God in whose image we are made. We can never earn our value. But that is what is implied by PGD.

How will selecting ‘out’ the imperfect specimens affect our tolerance of the physically handicapped in our community? We are essentially telling them that we think it would have been better if they had never been born. It is ironic that this eugenic drive to allow only perfectly normal babies to be born sits alongside the fact that more people are disabled after birth than before.

Tyranny of parental choice and control

Which highlights what is at the center of PGD. Parental choice and control. PGD is about what the parents want. We are increasingly used to being in control, and for some people it seems reasonable to extend this control over their offspring, as if we could know what is best for us as a family. But how can we know what is in the best interests of a child who may live until 2114? Who could have predicted the current value of being able to touch-type in a child born in fifty years ago? And we have the testimony of many disabled members of our community who find their lives rich and rewarding. Who are we kidding? Personally I have no desire to play God. But it may behove us to start a discussion with those in our community who do.