By / Apr 13

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) will recommend abolishing a longstanding ethical limitation on human embryo research. For decades the scientific community has observed the so-call 14-day rule. This ethical guideline—first formulated in the United Kingdom under the Warnock Commission in the mid-1980s—requires that embryos may only be gestated for 14 days after conception in the lab. The ISSCR wants the rule lifted so that human embryos can be developed to a more mature stage.

The 14-day rule was issued in the aftermath of the first successful IVF birth in the U.K. in 1978. The rationale for the rule is that at 14 days post-conception the developmental marker of the “primitive streak” appears, along which the central nervous system develops. Admittedly arbitrary, this marker has been an important benchmark for embryo research.

Acknowledging the plurality of views on the moral status of the human embryo even back then, the Warnock Commission recognized that some limits were necessary.  

. . . as we have said, it would be idle to pretend that there is not a wide diversity in moral feelings, whether these arise from religious, philosophical or humanist beliefs. What is common (and this too we have discovered from the evidence) is that people generally want some principles or other to govern the development and use of the new techniques. There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some limits fixed, beyond which people must not be allowed to go. Nor is such a wish for containment a mere whim or fancy. The very existence of morality depends on it. A society which had no inhibiting limits, especially in the areas with which we have been concerned, questions of birth and death, of the setting up of families, and the valuing of human life, would be a society without moral scruples. And this nobody wants. (Warnock Report, p. 2)

Well, at least nobody wanted the barriers to be crossed until now. According to Antonio Regalado, writing in MIT Technology Review, the ISSCR “is not going to set a specific new time limit, like 28 or 36 days . . . the society wants to move to a more flexible approach.” 

For those who are pro-life, the 14-day rule is already a bridge too far. This rule permits the generation of human embryos in the lab and requires researchers to destroy them by the 14th day. So, in fact, the 14-day rule is in essence a mandate to kill human embryos. 

And, if members of the ISSCR are honest, they must agree that human life begins at conception. That is, after all, why they want the 14-day limit abolished. They want a policy that will allow them to perform research on living members of the species Homo sapiens from conception onward. They want permission to research using living human embryos, not mouse embryos, dog embryos, or other species. 

Currently, in the United States, human embryo research may not be done with tax payer dollars. Since 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, attached to the appropriations bills for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education, restricts the use of federal funds for creating, destroying, or knowingly injuring human embryos. Each year the amendment faces challenges to overturn it. The jury is out on what the stance of the Biden administration will be.

To make matters yet more complicated, two different research teams have developed “embryo-like entities” called human blastoids, which resemble human embryos at the blastocyst stage. According to the scientists, these blastoids behave like early-stage embryos at about the 2-3 week stage of development. 

If these human blastoids behave like early-stage human embryos, including attaching themselves to the petri dish in a way similar to the way the embryo attaches to the uterine wall, how are they to be distinguished from human embryos?  Case Western Reserve and Harvard University bioethicist, Insoo Hyun, observed in a recent NPR interview that these experiments raise “a very interesting question of, at what point does an embryo model become a real embryo.” Indeed!

Are these really human embryos or does calling them “blastoids” only obscure the facts?  As, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, staff ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center has said, “Scientists face the perennial temptation to depersonalize early human life, and to treat embryos as objects. Human beings are so sacred, that we must particularly reverence them in their origins, in the way they come into the world.”

Research using human subjects, whether at the embryonic stage or at the end of life, requires utmost respect for the nature and sanctity of human life. Until researchers can be sure that they are not crossing the line by trampling on the sanctity of human embryos, they should resist those experiments. The end does not always justify the means to get there.

By / Aug 25

Recently, the Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board released its recommendations for funding based on proposals submitted to the National Institute of Health. This board, tasked with the oversight of projects that would require the use of fetal tissue, recommended that the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar withhold funding from all but one project. This has led to charges that the board is bringing ideology to bear on an objective process. However, the board is made up of experts across the ideological spectrum who weighed the proposals and made recommendations based on the merits or deficiencies of the proposals. 

Background: Defining fetal tissue research and a history of the oversight board

Fetal tissue research is the use of cells “that are harvested for the purpose of establishing cell lines or for use as transplantation material and other purposes.” This process of harvesting cells can be done through induced abortions or from miscarriages, but the mother must consent for the cells to be used in NIH proposals and research. 

The Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board was announced in June of 2019 when the Trump administration banned the current use of fetal tissue in federally funded projects. Previously, the process had been for grants to go from the National Institutes of Health to the Secretary for final approval. However, with the creation of the new board, previous projects were halted, and all new proposals had to go through an additional layer of ethical review. This board, made up of 15 individuals who meet specific qualifications, and which must be made up of a broad range of experts, considered the ethical ramifications of the research and the necessity of the fetal tissue research. Their recent meeting recommended withholding funds from 13 proposals previously approved by the NIH and the funding of one proposal. It will now be up to Secretary Azar to make the final decision under HHS rules.

The members of the board include scientists, theologians, ethicists, and medical professionals. There are a range of perspectives on the board raging from those opposed to fetal research and those who are advocates of the procedure. One member in particular, Ben Mitchell, should be noted because of his expertise in this area. He is a Southern Baptist bioethicist, a member of the ERLC’s Research Institute, and the former Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.

What recommendations were made?

Reviewing the recommendations of the board, there are several things to note about the proposals that were rejected and the one that was approved. Though there is no identifying information about the proposals, it is clear that, despite the ideological diversity of the board, there was not much disagreement on board about most proposals. When comparing the votes, only two of the proposals received relatively close votes. The other 12 ranged from 10-5 to 15-0 voting to withhold funds. So it is clear that on a board containing members across the ideological spectrum, a clear supermajority was reached as to the viability of these studies in almost every case. 

When looking at the reasons that the proposals were rejected, the participants noted a number of problems that caused them to vote as they did. These ranged from procedural and privacy concerns about the research to larger scale questions such as the manner in which the tissue would be obtained, whether another type of tissue could be used, and even the concern that one institution could be profiting from the procurement of the tissue. Also, it should be noted that several members of the board made clear that they would be willing to support the proposal if the problematic uses of tissue were removed or corrected. 

The board voted 9-6 for the proposal they recommended funding. The proposal is for a study of alternatives to fetal tissue and substitutes. In a study of this type, some fetal tissue is necessary as a control group so as to judge the experimental group. However, the recommendation clarifies that this study would be using existing fetal tissue which had been stored rather than acquiring new sources. Thus, it would not run afoul of causing the researchers to participate in abortion or other procedures to procure the samples. and if successful, it would eliminate the need for future research with fetal tissue by providing an alternative. 

How should Christians think about fetal tissue research?

There are several ethical considerations when it comes to fetal tissue research for the Christian. The first is the manner in which the tissue was originally collected. As noted above, fetal tissue can be taken from miscarriages or induced abortions. Christians ought to reject any willful taking of the life of a child for medical research purposes because of the child’s right to life. However, in the cases of miscarriages, there is room for disagreement among Christians about how to use the cells, just as in the case of individuals who donate their organs after death or bodies for medical research.

The other concern is what is to be done with cell lines that are already in existence from previously harvested tissue. Some of these were taken from aborted children, and thus were collected through unethical and immoral means. But does this mean that all research from the stem cell line must be rejected? While there is room for debate in this area, the salient ethical concern is whether an individual is participating in the evil of abortion by benefiting from the research of tissue collected by immoral means. As with vaccines developed with stem cell lines from aborted children, the individual who chooses to receive the vaccine is not morally culpable for the methods used to create the vaccine, but they should pursue ethical vaccine creation with alternatives to fetal tissue. 

In general, Christians should oppose the use of fetal tissue in research because of the way it incentivizes the marketing of aborted human fetal tissue. Though there are ways to obtain the tissue ethically, as with the consent of parents after a miscarriage, it is impossible to avoid the way this practice incentivizes the treatment of children as tools for scientific experimentation. One abortion provider, after intense public backlash following horrific videos detail practices for obtaining the tissue, said that it would no longer attempt to recoup the $45-60 that it receives as reimbursement for the tissue collection. When they made that statement in 2015, that $45 (taking the lower estimate) would have netted the abortion provider, if half of their 140,000 abortions resulted in fetal tissue to be sold, an additional $3 million. Christians should oppose this commodification of children and a Darwinistic worldview struggle that defines individuals by their utility rather than their intrinsic worth.

Ethics, science, and pro-life policies

For these reasons, the ERLC is grateful for the careful consideration the advisory board clearly carried out with respect to the proposals before it. The ERLC applauds the work of the board in ensuring an ethical approach to such a sensitive subject. 

Some detractors of the board have castigated it as a group which has brought ideology to bear on the rational and objective sciences. However, it should be noted that these ethical review boards arise out of a history of scientists objectifying individuals and populations and treating them as subjects for research rather than individuals possessing unique dignity and worth, most notably the notorious Tuskegee Study in the early 20th century. There is a need for ethical oversight when it comes to human research, especially when vulnerable populations are involved. 

Though there are cases where fetal tissue can be obtained ethically, as in the case of miscarriages, there is also the danger of incentivizing the death and sale of children through fetal tissue research. Thus, it is imperative that a board such as this review proposals and ensure that a culture of death is not expanded under the banner of improving life for the rest of humanity. We cannot sacrifice the weakest for our own benefit—that is a Darwinistic outlook that sees power and might as the standard of morality and defines a child in terms of his or her usefulness, not their intrinsic worth. The work that the advisory board is doing helps to promote an ethical approach to research that defends the rights of the most vulnerable.

By / Jul 21

July 21 marks the anniversary of the verdict in one of the most important court cases in American religious history: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes, or as it is commonly known, “The Scopes Monkey Trial.” This trial—which brought attention to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee—was an open and shut case of guilt. So what attracted so much attention? The trial was a visible clash of the fight raging within Christian denominations at the time between modernist and fundamentalists centered around the teaching of evolution. 

On one side was the fundamentalist, former secretary of state, and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who argued that teaching evolution was contrary to Scriptures. On the other side was self-proclaimed agnostic Clarence Darrow and the American Civil Liberties Union, who saw this case as a chance to roll back the influence of religion in education. The court case, especially when Bryan took the stand in defense of the fundamentalists, was an encapsulation of the ongoing struggle within American Christianity over how literally to interpret Genesis and just how to integrate Christian doctrine with new scientific information. The modernists saw no problem between the two or were willing to change Christian doctrine to fit the new information. The fundamentalists saw this as an attack on true Christianity. 

It was in the courtroom of a small town in Tennessee that these sides squared off for their most visible confrontation, and neither side walked away truly victorious. 


The conflict between fundamentalists and modernists had raged since the late 19th century. At the core of the debate was how to integrate the supernatural claims of the Bible with new criticism coming out of scientific inquiry. New scholarship raised doubts about the authorship of biblical texts, the timeline of their writing, and the details provided. Many of these revisions were attempts to maintain Christianity’s relevance and also find agreement between science and the Bible. Thus, rather than completely abandon the Bible, they choose to reinterpret it, often by disregarding the supernatural elements such as miracles or a virgin birth or a physical resurrection. 

Another point of controversy was in the creation account of Genesis 1-2. Higher criticism raised questions about Mosaic authorship, arguing that there were in fact different accounts of creation that had been woven together by different authors and a final editor. Further, when compared with modern scientific findings as made famous by Charles Darwin and others, it was impossible to square the age of the earth with a literal seven-day creation account. Though there were some Christians at the time—such as Benjamin Warfield and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary—who saw no problem in accepting a theistic evolution account, many fundamentalists saw this as an attack on the special place of humanity in the cosmos. These critics often asked how humanity was unique in God’s design if men and women were descended from apes. 

At the state level, this reached a crescendo when the Butler Act was passed in 1925 in Tennessee outlawing the teaching of evolution in schools. The ACLU offered to defend anyone who broke the law in an attempt to get it overturned. There has been considerable research which has shown that locals in Dayton, hoping that the trial would attract attention and business to the town, encouraged a local teacher known to teach evolution to challenge the law. He was subsequently fired and tried for breaking the law.

Important figures

John Thomas Scopes: Scopes was the defendant in the court case and a high school biology teacher and football coach. As a young, unmarried man who was not a local in the area, he had little to lose in being the ACLU’s test case. Also, there was never a question of his guilt. Scopes would go on to lose the trial and eventually receive a fine of $100 for the misdemeanor of teaching evolution. The fine was later overturned on appeal. 

William Jennings Bryan: Bryan was a staunch fundamentalist Presbyterian and progressive candidate (a not uncommon combination at the time). As a staunch Prohibitionist and anti-evolution crusader, Bryan often found himself seeking to save the conscience of the nation. He was a three-time unsuccessful candidate for president who served as secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson before returning to his social and legal advocacy. As a lawyer for the prosecution in the trial, he is best known for taking the stand and being questioned by Darrow as to the scientific accuracy of the Bible. 

Clarence Darrow: Darrow was the lawyer for the defense and vocal critic of religion. As the child of an atheist and a self-proclaimed agnostic, Darrow saw this is as a chance to attack the fundamentalist movement and the way he felt it was overstepping the role of religion in the public square. Darrow was famous before the trial for his role as defense attorney in the Leopold-Loeb murder trial. By the end of the trial, his questioning of Bryan on the witness stand had helped to humiliate the fundamentalist movement before the wider culture as he pointed out supposed contradictions in the biblical text.

H.L. Mencken: Mencken, journalist for the Baltimore Sun, is perhaps the person best known for describing the trial to the outside world. His columns portrayed the Bryan and the fundamentalists, not to mention Southerners in general, as backwoods yokels. His writing and depiction of Southern fundamentalists was what helped the modernists win the larger culture war, even as they lost the specific court case.

Events of the trial

At the heart of the trial was not a question of guilt. Scopes did not hide that he had taught evolution. He was guilty under the Butler Act. However, the ACLU argued that the law itself was unconstitutional because it violated Scopes’ free-speech. Bryan, arguing for the prosecution, asserted that the people of Tennessee who paid for the school and Scopes’ salary had a right to dictate what was taught, especially when it was something like evolution, which he claimed undermined the Christian faith. However, both sides, especially Darrow and Bryan, came to see the court case as unconcerned with free speech and a death match between science and religion. 

Thus, the most memorable moment of the trial came when Bryan took the stand in defense of the Bible as an expert witness. After asking a series of questions meant to illustrate the use of figurative language in the Bible (i.e., Jesus describing his followers as the salt of the earth in Matthew 5), Darrow attempted to get Bryan to agree that the earth was only 6,000 years old (a theory popularized by Anglican archbishop James Ussher). As historian Baryr Hankins recounts, Darrow interrogated Bryan about world religions, modern science, and even biblical criticism, showing that he was not an expert in any of these fields. Further, Bryan was not even a literal creationist: Bryan believed that the six days in Genesis weren’t, by necessity, 24-hour days, but rather time periods.  

Bryan was shown to be woefully ill-informed and was summarily humiliated. At the same time, Darrow’s attacks, though in agreement in the conclusion by the broader culture, were not all well-received, even by liberal theologians who saw them as attacks against any faith, not just fundamentalism. By the end of the day, both men found themselves ill-composed, shouting at one another and threatening violence against one another. The judge adjourned for the day, and when the case resumed the following day, both sides agreed that the jury should be brought in and deliver their verdict, which they did in a matter of minutes with a verdict of guilty.

Lasting influence

Scopes lost the trial, but fundamentalists lost the broader culture war. Because there was no doubt that Scopes had taught evolution, this was never about his guilt. The jury quickly determined that Scopes was guilty of breaking the law and was subsequently fined $100. This fine was later overturned on appeal. However, for the fundamentalist movement, this trial served to humiliate them on the national stage, largely due to the writing of journalist H.L Mencken. After being cast as uneducated rubes, many chose to retreat and create their own institutions and subculture rather than interact with broader society. 

Although historians such as Daniel Williams and Darren Dochuk have complicated this narrative by showing that though they did not enjoy the larger cultural influence they possessed previously, they did not entirely disappear. Rather, they laid a foundation for what would emerge in the middle of the 20th century as the evangelical movement, encapsulated in figures such as Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and eventually the Religious Right of the 70s and 80s.

However, the trial in Dayton, Tennessee (which is reenacted every July), set the stage for the larger culture wars between fundamentalists/evangelicals and their theologically liberal counterparts over issues such as abortion, the feminist movement, and eventually the LGBTQ movement that would shape the 20th century.

Further reading

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson: Larson’s Pulitzer winning book is one of the most thorough and readable accounts of the trial and its enduring impact on the role that science and religion play in the public square, as well as evangelicalism’s relationship to science and education. 

Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars by Barry Hankins: Hankins’ book looks at the entire decade of the roaring 20s, and he devotes an entire chapter to the court case which represented the high point of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden: Marsden is the preeminent historian of fundamentalism, and his classic work places the movement in the broader sweep of American religious history. 

Clarence Darrow Papers & Court Transcript: The Court Transcript of Bryan’s testimony and Darrow’s line of questions beginning on day six of the trial can be found in Darrow’s papers contained in the University of Minnesota School of Law.

By / Sep 23

Imagine a future where we have convinced ourselves that everything we know and experience can be reduced down to some chemical process or explained away as ultimately insignificant. In this world, there is nothing truly unique about us, our families, or the world around us. We are merely highly-evolved sets of matter, and everything including our emotions, spirituality, and desires can be explained away as a chemical reaction in our brains. Our minds and bodies are not intricately connected; our mortal bodies simply serve as containers for our minds, which can be transferred from one place to another via a technique called “mind uploading.”

A couple of weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from a new book by neuroscientist and psychologist Michael S.A. Graziano, who teaches at Princeton University, titled Rethinking Consciousness: A Scientific Theory of Subjective Experience. Graziano argues that we are much closer to the ability to upload a human mind than many might think because we have already been able to create artificial brains, albeit on a small scale, and are now trying to overcome the second hurdle of scanning a human brain. 

Old questions with a new twist 

In this excerpt, Graziano asked some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of man and philosophical questions about the real “you” in a world of digital copies and simulations produced through mind uploading. Lest we think this conversation is for doctors and ivory-tower academics only, the questions being asked are the same types of questions that humanity has always wrestled with. The difference now is the perceived possibilities that have arisen in light of advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics.

From the beginning, man has sought to challenge God by arguing that we know better than the creator of the universe. In Genesis, we read that God created everything, including us as his unique image-bearers (Gen. 1:26-27). But by Genesis 3, humanity had already sought to resist the created order and question the goodness of God. Questions of “Did God really say?” and thoughts of I know better than God originated in the garden, where we exchanged the truth of God for the lie that we must know better.

From the beginning, man has sought to challenge God by arguing that we know better than the creator of the universe.

In the early Christian church, there was a popular belief, known as gnosticism, among many that our minds and souls were much more valuable than our bodies. Gnosticism is the belief that the material world is inherently evil and corrupt, but souls are inherently good. This led many to treat the body as less than, thus viewing death as freeing us from the container that held us for so long. In modern-day belief, this segmentation of humanity takes a new form where the mind is seen as the real “you.” The body is only valuable as the hardware that’s holding the software of the real you. And it’s believed that our minds can thus be uploaded to the “cloud” in order to live in a digital afterlife without the shackles of the fleshly body.

Downgrading our dignity

The Bible teaches something very different from the heresy of gnosticism. We see throughout Scripture how the body is to be valued and honored, not viewed merely as a container for our minds but upheld as an integral part of who we really are. The best example of this is seen in the person and work of our Savior. Jesus Christ took on human flesh, became man, and dwelt among us (John 1:4). Jesus lived the perfect human life in full obedience to his Father and demonstrated the value of the soul and body as a connected whole when he was murdered and raised from the dead. The resurrection shows us that the flesh that so many disregard in light of modern technology is actually an integral part of who we are. We are not fully human without our bodies. Christ was not raised from the dead in some spiritual sense (1 Cor. 15:20-21). He is still and will forever be the incarnate Son of God who told Thomas to touch his wounds and know that he is real (John 20:27)

Christianity teaches that our flesh is indeed broken. And the desire to want to escape our bodies is understandable in a world of so much suffering. But the hope that we have as Christians is that our bodies can and will be redeemed by the finished work of Christ on the cross (Rev. 21:4-5). We will live in eternal communion with our Savior in resurrected bodies. So to answer the question that Graizano asked throughout his essay, the real you is the embodied you. While we may be able to make a copy of our brains in the future, our minds are not who we really are. We’re much more than some materialist version of the self.

Testing the spirits

In our modern world of technological wonders and advancements, it’s easy for us to get caught up in the hype of what’s coming around the corner. We see new marvels almost every day that shatter what we believed was possible. We grow accustomed to these advances and often take those with credentials at their word when they dream of what might be. But Christians are people of the book. 1 John 4:1 tells us that we are not to believe every spirit in this world, but are to test the spirit to make sure they are of God. It’s tempting in our technology-rich society to be swayed from the truth of God, and we will be if we aren’t anchored to the Word of the everlasting God.

Even as many like famed computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, technologist Elon Musk, and Graziano promote the idea of uploading our minds and escaping the confines of our fleshly existence, we must seek to test the theories they promote against the truth of Scripture and what God has already spoken. Our faith demands it. Furthermore, much of what is considered settled fact in science takes massive steps of faith on the part of those who hold to these beliefs. Many problems with this line of thinking still exist such as the question of consciousness, simply knowing you exist or “thinking about thinking,” as well as the foundation of morality and ethics in a materialistic world. I look forward to Graziano’s full work on consciousness and how he deals with these questions.

We must engage in honest dialogue with one another about these pressing issues and perennial questions. It’s easy for us to outsource deep reflection to others with advanced degrees because we don’t feel equipped to pose the tough, but needed questions. But the Christian life isn’t one of shallow faith or belief. Throughout the New Testament, we see leaders like Paul, John, and Peter challenging the Church to rise up and engage the philosophical debates of the day with the truth of God’s Word. May we take up that call to engage the world around us as it is rather than how we wish it to be. Let’s step out in faith, asking the hard questions, and ultimately find our hope in the One that took on flesh and dwelt among us to save us from our unbelief.

By / May 7

An early childhood memory of mine is of sitting by a window on a rainy day, watching the drops splash against the pane. Like all normal children, I spent most of my life racing around. But at this particular moment, I was still, and my mind had time to drift. I remember a series of questions popping into my head:

Why can I think?
Why do I exist?
Why am I a living, breathing, conscious person who experiences life?

I don’t really remember where the questions came from. Neither do I remember my exact age. They were just there. Unprompted.

I know I am not the first to have this kind of “moment.” When we sit still for long enough, all kinds of things bubble to the surface of our consciousness. But where exactly do our thoughts come from? Some of the loudest voices to answer this question come from neuroscience. They respond, “Your thoughts are merely the firing of neurons. End of story.” In other words, “You are your brain.”

Machine, muscle, or more?

Sir Colin Blakemore, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said in 1976:

“The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. All our actions are the products of the activity of our brains.”

If true, this view has implications for ethics, AI, and religious belief and experience.

But surely the mind is also important in this conversation? Surely, we don’t think with our brains but with our minds? But what exactly is the mind, and how does it relate to the brain? Herein lies the rub. The relationship of mind to brain has been disputed for centuries, because, as Marilynne Robinson, has pointed out,

“Whoever controls the definition of the mind controls the definition of humankind itself.”

The view of Blakemore and others, is that the mind is the brain. Mind and brain are identical. In other words, there isn’t really such a thing as the mind, but only the activity of the brain.

Poking at the dominant theory

What can we say about the view that reduces a person entirely to the workings of their brain? The following questions are helpful:

First, is it internally coherent? Is this a watertight position, or are there internal inconsistencies? If we were to dig deeper, we would see that this view deeply undermines human rationality and even our ability to practice science.

Second, does it have explanatory power? Does it make sense of the world we live in or merely add to the confusion? This view fails to explain the inner “me.” A large part of who I am comes from an unseen inner life consisting of thoughts, memories, emotions, and decisions, none of which are captured by cell voltages, neurotransmitters and blood-flow changes.

Third, can it be lived? Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), was convinced that true beliefs line up with our experience of life. And what is our experience? We live as though we do the thinking, not our brains. Neurons do not think: people think. Mindfulness, self-help, counselling, autobiographies, child-abuse scandals, or indeed anything that requires introspection, all assume that the first-person vantage-point is real. We live as if there is far more to us than simply our brain.

Some alternative ideas

The voices that espouse this view are loud but are by no means the only ones in the choir. There are several alternatives espousing a mind that may interact with the brain but is certainly not at the mercy of it.

One alternative view is that the brain generates the mind. Neurons coalesce into thoughts. We know that a film is produced when a number of components pull together: the cast, script, camera crew, soundtrack, director, and so on. Similarly, when the components of the brain combine and reach a certain level of complexity, they give rise to something new and distinct: the mind. Once formed, the mind cannot be reduced back to its original components, just like the film that we watch is more than the sum of its contributors. It has become an experience. According to this view, the mind is more than the brain but is inextricably bound to it. But what happens to the mind when the brain dies?

A second alternative is that the mind is beyond the brain. Thoughts are beyond neurons. Mind and brain are two distinct substances that interact but can also operate independently of each other. There is a physical brain and a non-physical mind. But how exactly does a non-physical mind interact with a physical brain? Especially since neuroscience shows a strong connection between the two.

Thinking bigger

A great deal of time has been taken up in trying to answer the question of where our thoughts come from. Perhaps a question to break the stalemate is to ask, what they are for? In other words, why exactly can I think?

Scientists ask, can we trace consciousness back to its origins? The question is a good one. Of course, beliefs determine how far back we look. If we believe the natural world is all there is, then our search for the origins of consciousness will remain within nature. But what if there is more to this world than simply animals, vegetables, and minerals? What if the origins of consciousness are more ancient than this? If so, then we must expand the scope of our search beyond the natural world.

Christians believe that the origins of consciousness and human thought can be traced to a conscious being known as God who has always existed. “Why can I think?” We have a mind because God has a mind. We think because he thinks. We are conscious because he is conscious. And our minds, our thoughts, our conscious awareness of self and world—though real enough—are only the beginning.

In Am I Just My Brain, neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?"

By / Jan 24

“I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning”

My family has a digital assistant working in our home that is incredibly smart, never takes a break, and never complains about its job. Recently, we purchased a Google Home mini to integrate with other smart products in our home, and my family has found some fun ways to use it, especially with our toddler.

My son is learning different animal sounds, and his favorite sound to make is “moo.” We discovered that our Google Home will make animal noises on command, and he loves to hear its sounds. A few weeks back, we asked our Google Home to make a number of different animal sounds, and it’s response to one that it couldn’t find struck me. “I can’t help you with that right now. But I am always learning.”

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an emerging field of technology defined as non-biological intelligence, where a machine is programmed to accomplish complex goals. Popularly known examples are Google Home, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. But there are far more advanced AI systems than these being used in a variety of applications, such as business, medicine, and finance.

Recently, a set of videos went viral on the internet from Google’s DeepMind and Boston Dynamics. These AI based systems were doing things that astonished most viewers and even many in the AI field. From an AI teaching itself how to walk and jump without human intervention to a humanoid robot doing back flips and crossing rough terrain, AI systems have become so advanced that many are starting to wonder what these systems will be able to accomplish in the future as they become smarter and human intervention becomes less necessary. This is not a sci-fi fantasy. It’s reality.

Not just fun and games

The term “artificial intelligence” was coined in the 1956 by John McCarthy, who is considered the father of AI. That year he organized the “The Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence,” which was a gathering of experts for brainstorming about the reality of AI. In the last few years, the complexity of these systems has grown faster than most believed possible.

Google’s DeepMind created an AI system called AlphaGo that recently dethroned the reigning Go champion. Go is an ancient abstract strategy board game that is played on 19×19 inch board with black and white stones. The game was created over 2,500 years ago in China and is still played by over 40 million people in 75 different countries. The game is extremely complex even though it has very simple rules. It is believed that there are at least 2 x 10170² possible moves on the game board which leads most players to use their intuition rather than rote memory to win the game.

Prior AI was developed using “expert systems” that had not been able to take on a challenge like the game of Go based on complexity. These systems dealt with facts rather than ideas. Examples are IBM’s Watson and Deep Blue that played chess. They became “experts” for a given problem but were not able to transcend the task they were designed to accomplish, meaning they could not be applied to other tasks.

The AlphaGo project was formed by Google’s DeepMind around 2014 to research the ability of AI systems to use “deep neural networks” for learning rather than expert systems. This type of machine learning was new to the AI field because it was programmed to function similar to a human brain. In March 2016, AlphaGo beat world champion Lee Sedol 4 to 1 in a 5-game match. AlphaGo surpassed all expectations for AI systems and helped show what the future of AI might hold. The possibilities are seemingly limitless for what AI is able to learn to do.

AI and work?

We might be tempted to think that AI systems are sci-fi fun and games, but AI is so much more. One example is how AI systems are revolutionizing our workforce through various types of automation and data processing that leads many AI researchers, government heads, and industry leaders to question how we have thought about the workforce and the role of computer systems. Many jobs previously thought untouchable by machines are now on the brink of being augmented by or replaced completely by AI in the near future.

AI systems are being used to supplement, and in many cases, take over entire factories. An AI system is able to do the jobs of thousands of factory workers while working 24/7 without breaks. These systems are often overseen by a single operator and a few human workers that clean up after the robots. These AI-based factories are producing higher quality products at rates that far exceed that of their human counterparts and are doing all of this cheaper, making the company more money. Many people have been put out of work because of these advanced systems, and the rate of job replacement is projected to continue exponentially as AI continues to learn and grow ever more complex.

Many researchers and developers now proclaim that we have entered the “second machine age” where machines can rival their human counterparts in many areas never thought possible.

The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Expendable humanity?

While a complete AI takeover of society is not imminent, it is very likely that within the next 20-50 years we will see society completely revolutionized by these systems. From the workforce to healthcare and art, the influence of AI is growing at an exponential rate. The church must be proactive in learning about Artificial Intelligence, as well as participating in the larger discussion about the future of AI research and development.

Large groups of AI researchers and technology giants are now gathering to discuss AI safety research and how we want to implement this technology in the future. Most of these discussions revolve around the concept of human dignity in light of the rise of stronger AI systems. Topics range from upgrading humanity with machine components allowing us to live longer or perform tasks outside of basic human ability and strength, to how an AI system is to be treated by society as these systems are beginning to function more autonomously. What role should AI systems have in government, military, and business applications? Do AI systems live under the same type of morality code that we as humans have as a society? Should these machines be treated similar to humans with basic rights if they are able to outperform humans in many tasks or surpass human knowledge?

The church has the ability to be a part of these discussions much earlier than most ethical issues that we have faced in the past, such as the horror of abortion. In the 1970s, many evangelicals did not speak out against abortion and its legalization, yet now are boldly advocating for pro-life legislation and caring for women in crisis pregnancy situations. Today, instead of being reactive to technological trends, we should seek to be proactive in these discussions, proclaiming that human dignity is not based on what we do but on who we are as created in the image of God. AI systems and machines might one day outperform us in every type of task and maybe even replace us in the workplace, but they will never have a soul and will never be able overtake their creators in terms of dignity and worth.

AI is always learning, the question is, how will we respond?

By / Oct 12

Recently, it was announced that a controversial technique that uses the DNA from three persons has resulted in the first birth of a child.[1] The birth of the baby boy occurred five months ago, yet scientists are just now publicizing their success. For embryology, this is truly groundbreaking in the sense that it has never been done before.[2] However, for those ascribing to a Christian worldview, many questions persist.

What was done?

In this particular case, the Jordanian couple approached the U.S.-based team who performed the procedure after experiencing the death of two children. The mother is a carrier for Leigh syndrome, a disorder that affects the central nervous system and is typically fatal within the first three years of life. After consultation with the medical team, it was decided that a technique known as spindle nuclear transfer would be utilized. The physician, Dr. John Zhang, of the New Hope Fertility Center in NYC, first removed the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that had had its own nucleus removed. This resulting egg (which had the nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a donor) was then fertilized with the father’s sperm, resulting in three unique DNA contributions for the child.

It is important to note that this technique has only been approved by the UK Parliament, which permitted the technology in early 2015.[3] The U.S.-based team had to travel to Mexico to actually perform the procedure in order to evade FDA oversight and capitalize on loose regulations south of the border.

What are the problems?

Pragmatically, such legal restrictions are in place for good reason, for there are too many unanswered ethical and medical questions. It is simply not readily known what type of adverse effects such a procedure may have on progeny. Recent research has suggested that mitochondrial DNA plays a role in some personality traits.[4] Hence, vital traits will no longer be inherited by only two parents, but rather three, which is completely novel for human beings.

During the UK debates on this technology, Dr. Trevor Stammers, programme director in Bioethics and Medical Law at St Mary's University of London, stated: “Even if these babies are born they will have to be monitored all their lives, and their children will have to be as well. We do not yet know the interaction between the mitochondria and nuclear DNA. To say that it is the same as changing a battery is facile. It’s an extremely complex thing.”

Further, Dr. Rhiannon Lloyd from the Zoological Society of London similarly cautioned that in more than 50 percent of animal studies, faulty mitochondrial DNA was transferred over during the procedure. Moreover, in March 2014, the chair of the FDA’s Cellular, Tissue and Gene Therapies Advisory Committee, looking into the issue of mitochondrial DNA transfer wrote to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (part of the UK’s Department of Health) to warn that their panel had decided the science of mitochondrial donation was not safe.[5] Hence, from a safety and public health perspective, there is simply not enough evidence to show that such procedures are safe. It is imprudent to trod down a road of uncertainty when the stakes are as high as this. As one commentator put it, this is science by press release.[6]

However, even if the safety of the procedure for the resulting children could be guaranteed, there remain many theological considerations for reproductive technologies in general, and three-genetic-parent embryos, in particular. The issue of human dignity must be at the forefront of this discussion. Human beings are not engineered creations to be tinkered with for the sake of novelty and innovation. Human beings, who bear the image of the Creator God, are good gifts to be received, rather than objects to be produced. The production of three-genetic-parent children points to a minimization of the sacredness of the human creation as unique gifts from God. As Albert Mohler has pointed out, once we see children as objects to be customized, ordered and configured to our liking and specifications, this changes the inherent relationship between a parent and child. This also has the ability of altering our thinking of what it means to be human.[7]

We must realistically note that one advance in technology inevitably leads to others. Once a technology like this becomes publicized and available, then it naturally leads to a widening of the application, and additional questionable biomedical activities and technologies are sure to follow. Once a society recognizes the moral worth of one genetic technology, then it predictably leads to the moral acceptance of other technologies. This is not so much a slippery slope argument as it is a statement based upon past history. Once this doorway is opened, further experimentation in the realm of designer children will not be far removed.

Let’s be clear: The desire for children is a good desire. There is a clear pattern throughout Scripture of God desiring for people to have children (Gen. 1:28) and for children being a blessing to their parents (Ps. 127:3-5). As churches and Christians, we must show compassion and tenderness toward those who have suffered infertility and disorders that have prevented the natural bearing of healthy children. Surely this is the result of a world gone awry by the effects of sin. However, the pursuit of children by any and every means is not something we should applaud, for it sets dangerous precedents from which it is difficult to backpedal.

By / Sep 1

“Few topics are as complex and controversial as human sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Lawrence S. Mayer and Paul R. McHugh. “These matters touch upon our most intimate thoughts and feelings, and help to define us as both individuals and social beings. Discussions of the ethical questions raised by sexual orientation and gender identity can become heated and personal, and the associated policy issues sometimes provoke intense controversies.”

In an attempt to shed light on these often heated discussion, Mayer and McHugh have produced a massive new 143-page report, published in the last edition of The New Atlantis, which “offers a careful summary and an up-to-date explanation of many of the most rigorous findings produced by the biological, psychological, and social sciences related to sexual orientation and gender identity.”

McHugh, the former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital and arguably one of the leading psychiatrists in the world, and Mayer, a biostatistician and epidemiologist, reviewed more than 500 studies for their report.

While the report is worth reading in its entirety, it’s length may make is inaccessible to the general public. To encourage further examination of the document, I’ve compiled a list of highlights that will provide a broad and extensive—though nowhere near comprehensive—summary overview of their findings.

Sexual Orientation

Problem of Definition

• The concept of sexual orientation is highly ambiguous, and can refer to a set of behaviors, to feelings of attraction, or to a sense of identity.

• One of the central difficulties in examining and researching sexual orientation is that the underlying concepts of “sexual desire,” “sexual attraction,” and “sexual arousal” can be ambiguous, and it is even less clear what it means that a person identifies as having a sexual orientation grounded in some pattern of desires, attractions, or states of arousal.

• There are currently no agreed-upon definitions of “sexual orientation,” “homosexuality,” or “heterosexuality” for purposes of empirical research. Because of this, the authors note, “We will continue to employ ambiguous terms like ‘sexual orientation’ where they are used by the authors we discuss, but we will try to be attentive to the context of their use and the ambiguities attaching to them.”

• Longitudinal studies of adolescents suggest that sexual orientation may be quite fluid over the life course for some people and that those who report same-sex attraction no longer do so as adults.

Genetic and Innate Factors

• Research suggests that while genetic or innate factors (e.g., genes, hormones) may influence the emergence of same-sex attractions, these biological factors cannot provide a complete explanation, and environmental and experiential factors may also play an important role.

• There is some evidence from the twin studies that certain genetic profiles probably increase the likelihood the person later identifies as homosexual or engages in same-sex sexual behavior.

• The largest attempt to identify genetic variants associated with homosexuality, a study of over 23,000 individuals, found no linkages reaching genome-wide significance for same-sex sexual identity for males or females.

• The weight of evidence to date strongly suggests that the contribution of genetic factors is modest.

• Hormonal conditions that contribute to disorders of sex development may contribute to the development of non-heterosexual orientations in some individuals, but this does not demonstrate that such factors explain the development of sexual attractions, desires, and behaviors in the majority of cases.

• Studies of the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals have found some differences, but have not demonstrated that these differences are inborn rather than the result of environmental factors that influenced both psychological and neurobiological traits.

• There is virtually no evidence that anyone, homosexual or heterosexual, is “born that way” if that means their sexual orientation was genetically determined.

Sexual Abuse Victimization and Other Environmental Factors

• One study found that bisexuals had significantly higher proportions than heterosexuals of all adverse childhood experience factors, and that homosexuals had significantly higher proportions than heterosexuals of all these measures except parental separation or divorce. Overall, homosexuals had nearly 1.7 times, and bisexuals 1.6 times, the heterosexual rate of adverse childhood experiences.

• Another study of nearly 35,000 adults found that among those reporting exposure to traumatic events, homosexuals as well as bisexuals had about twice the lifetime risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) compared to the heterosexual reference group. Homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals with same-sex partners reported experiencing worse traumas during childhood and adolescence than the reference group.

• While one study suggests that sexual abuse may sometimes be a causal contributor to having a non-heterosexual orientation, more research is needed to elucidate the biological or psychological mechanisms. Without such research, the idea that sexual abuse may be a causal factor in sexual orientation remains speculative.

• One environmental factor that appears to be correlated with non-heterosexuality is childhood sexual abuse victimization. Non-heterosexuals are about two to three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse than heterosexuals.

• In one major survey only 1.2 percent of males who had spent their adolescence in a rural environment responded that they had had a male sexual partner in the year of the survey while those who had spent adolescence living in metropolitan areas were close to four times (4.4 percent) more likely to report that they had had such an encounter.

• In that same survey women who attended college were nine times more likely to identify as lesbians than women who did not.

Distribution of Sexual Desires and Changes Over Time

• There is now considerable scientific evidence that sexual desires, attractions, behaviors, and even identities can, and sometimes do, change over time.

• While ambiguities in defining and characterizing sexual desire and orientation make changes in sexual desire difficult to study, data from these large, population-based national studies of randomly sampled individuals do suggest that all three dimensions of sexuality — affect, behavior, and identity — may change over time for some people.

• Several researchers have suggested that sexual orientation and attractions may be especially plastic for women.

• One survey found that 35 percent of self-identified gay men reported experiencing opposite-sex attractions in the past year, and 10 percent of self-identified gay men reported opposite-sex sexual behavior during the same period. Additionally, nearly as many men transitioned at some time in their life from gay to bisexual, queer, or unlabeled identity as did men from bisexual to gay identity.

Mental Health

• Compared to the general population, non-heterosexual and transgender subpopulations have higher rates of mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and suicide, as well as behavioral and social problems such as substance abuse and intimate partner violence.

• The limited available research strongly suggests that transgender people have increased risks of poor mental health outcomes. It appears that the rates of co-occurring substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide tend to be higher for transgender people than for homosexual and bisexual individuals.

• One report found that homosexual youth and adults — and women in particular — appear to be likelier than heterosexuals to smoke, use or abuse alcohol, and abuse other drugs.

• Compared to heterosexuals, members of the non-heterosexual population are estimated to have 1.5 times higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders, 1.5 times the risk of substance abuse and about 2 times the risk of depression.

• Combined worldwide studies showed up to 50 percent higher rates of mental disorders and substance abuse among persons self-identifying in surveys as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Lesbian or bisexual women showed higher levels of substance abuse, while gay or bisexual men had higher rates of depression and panic disorder.

Sexuality and suicide

• Compared to heterosexuals, members of the non-heterosexual population are nearly 2.5 times the risk of suicide.

• Members of the transgender population are also at higher risk of a variety of mental health problems compared to members of the non-transgender population.

• The rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41 percent, compared to under 5 percent in the overall U.S. population.

• Compared to the general population, adults who have undergone sex-reassignment surgery continue to have a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes.

Sexuality and Intimate Partner Violence

• The weight of evidence indicates that the rate of intimate partner violence is significantly higher among same-sex couples.

Explanations for the Poor Health Outcomes: The Social Stress Model

• In attempting to account for the mental health disparities between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, researchers occasionally refer to a social or minority stress model.

• The social stress model probably accounts for some of the poor mental health outcomes experienced by sexual minorities, though the evidence supporting the model is limited, inconsistent and incomplete. However, this theory does not seem to offer a complete explanation for the disparities in the mental health outcomes.

• The social stress model deserves further research, but should not be assumed to offer a complete explanation of the causes of mental health disparities if clinicians and policymakers want to adequately address the mental health challenges faced by the LGBT community.

Gender Identity

• The concept of biological sex is well defined, based on the binary roles that males and females play in reproduction. By contrast, the concept of gender is not well defined. It is generally taken to refer to behaviors and psychological attributes that tend to be typical of a given sex.

• The scientific definition of biological sex is, for almost all human beings, clear, binary, and stable, reflecting an underlying biological reality that is not contradicted by exceptions to sex-typical behavior, and cannot be altered by surgery or social conditioning.

• The causes of cross-gender identification remain poorly understood. Research investigating whether these transgender individuals have certain physiological features or experiences in common with the opposite sex, such as brain structures or atypical prenatal hormone exposures, has so far been inconclusive.

• Studies show inconclusive evidence and mixed findings regarding the brains of transgender adults. Brain-activation patterns in these studies do not offer sufficient evidence for drawing sound conclusions about possible associations between brain activation and sexual identity or arousal.

• The current studies on associations between brain structure and transgender identity are small, methodologically limited, inconclusive, and sometimes contradictory.

• There is no evidence that gender identity is an innate, fixed property of human beings that is independent of biological sex (e.g., “a man trapped in a woman’s body”). The consensus of scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the proposition that a physically and developmentally normal boy or girl is indeed what he or she appears to be at birth.

• Gender dysphoria — a sense of incongruence between one’s biological sex and one’s gender, accompanied by clinically significant distress or impairment — is sometimes treated in adults by hormones or surgery, but there is little scientific evidence that these therapeutic interventions have psychological benefits.

• Only about 0.6 percent of U.S. adults identify as a gender that does not correspond to their biological sex.

• Science has shown that gender identity issues in children usually do not persist into adolescence or adulthood, and there is little scientific evidence for the therapeutic value of puberty-delaying treatments.

By / Oct 2

Abortion is again at the center of the American public’s attention, and the issue remains as contentious as ever. The release of video recordings of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the organization’s practices and procedures in procuring, selling, and conveying fetal tissue harvested from aborted babies has spurred renewed discussion regarding abortion, fetal tissue research, and public and private funding that enables Planned Parenthood to lead an effort responsible for the deaths of over 1 million babies in the United States every year. With public attention and media attention focused on this issue, presidential candidates are being asked to address (and some are addressing) these videos and the funding of Planned Parenthood. Likewise, the defenders of abortion are attempting to respond to both the public revelation of Planned Parenthood’s practices and the arguments made by presidential candidates.

Professor David Orentlicher of Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law has recently offered a response.[1] In a blog post entitled “Abortion and the Fetal Personhood Fallacy,” he argued that “Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and other politicians continue to assert a common fallacy about abortion—because human life begins at conception, fetuses are persons, and abortion must be prohibited. Indeed, Huckabee and Rubio claim that the U.S. Constitution requires such a result.”[2]  Orentlicher continued: the “flaw in [their] logic was pointed out more than 40 years ago” when Professor Judith Jarvis Thomson “correctly observed that even if we assume that personhood begins at conception, it does not follow that abortion must be banned before the fetus is viable. Indeed, as she wrote, a ban on abortion before fetal viability would be inconsistent with basic principles of law.”[3]

Orentlicher thus charged that the anti-abortion argument of Rubio and Huckabee (and presumably a large number of pro-life Americans) rests on a logical fallacy regarding the personhood of fetuses. His charge warrants further consideration.

Orentlicher’s Inaccurate Restatement of the Rubio/Huckabee Argument

Orentlicher framed the Rubio/Huckabee argument is the following form:

Premise: Human life begins at conception.

Therefore: Fetuses are persons.

And therefore: Abortion must be prohibited under the United States Constitution.

If this were an accurate restatement of the Rubio/Huckabee argument, Orentlicher would be correct that it is deficient in form and that its logic is flawed. He did not, however, accurately state the Rubio/Huckabee argument.

On August 6, 2015, during the GOP debate, Senator Rubio provided the following response to the question whether he approves of a rape and incest exception to a ban on abortion:

I have advocated . . . that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection.

In fact, I think that law already exists. It is called the Constitution of the United States.

. . . I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws, whether they can vote or not. Whether they can speak or not. Whether they can hire a lawyer or not. Whether they have a birth certificate or not. And I think future generations will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who[m] we never gave . . . a chance to live.

On August 7, during an interview on CNN about his views on a rape and incest exception, he added:

I think both of those instances are horrifying, and fortunately, they are extremely rare. It happens. And anytime it happens, it’s horrifying and it’s a tragedy. But I personally and honestly and deeply believe that all human life is worthy of protection irrespective of the circumstances, in which that human life was created. I personally believe that you do not correct one tragedy with a second tragedy. . . . But by the same token, if I have to weigh the two equities here, I am always going to err on the side of life. . . .

The idea that a human life is worthy of [the] protection [of our laws] is a timeless principle. . . .

Science has—absolutely it has [decided that human life begins at conception]. . . . Science has decided that when a—science has concluded—absolutely it has. What else can it be? It cannot turn into an animal. It can’t turn into a donkey. That’s the law. The only thing that that can become is a human being. . . . Every human—human life. It can’t be anything else. . . .

Every single one of us started at the same stage. It can’t become anything other than a human being. And it is neither up to you nor [me] nor any politicians to decide that we’re going to allow this life to move forward and this life not to. . . . Do you want to really have a government in the [position] of deciding what a human life is and what’s not a human life. . . .

. . . [My faith] does influence me to believe that all human life is worthy of protection, even human life that doesn’t have a birth certificate, even human life that maybe that some scientist wants to have a debate about. But I believe the science is clear that when there is conception, that is a human life in the early stages of its total development and that is worthy of the protection of our laws. . . .

At the same GOP debate, Governor Huckabee stated:

I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law. It’s time that we recognize the Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and we change the policy to be pro-life and protect children instead of rip up their body parts and sell them like they’re parts to a Buick.

Then, on August 8, at a news conference following his speech at the RedState Gathering, Huckabee emphasized the need to “start protecting those people who are unborn” and to “make it a federal policy that you protect these lives.” (See David Weigel, “GOP Candidates Expand on Conservative Views at RedState Gathering,” Washington Post)

The Actual Rubio/Huckabee Argument

Because Orentlicher failed to state accurately the reasoning of Rubio and Huckabee, his analysis of their argument is fundamentally flawed. A careful review of the statements of Rubio and Huckabee excerpted above reveals at least three related arguments.[4]Argument #1 is:

Premise: All human life (all human lives) is worthy of legal protection.

Premise: A fetus (an unborn baby) is human life.

Therefore: A fetus (an unborn baby) is worthy of legal protection.

Argument #2 is:

Premise: A living human being is a person.

Premise: A fetus is a living human being.

Therefore: A fetus is a person.

Argument #3 is:

Premise: In the United States, every person is protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Premise: A fetus is a person.

Therefore: In the United States, a fetus is protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The actual Rubio/Huckabee argument deserves consideration by those who defend abortion and who suggest that the opponents of abortion rely on fallacious arguments.

Orentlicher’s Point and Some of Its Shortcomings

Orentlicher’s reference to Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion” helps to reveal the larger point he undertook to make in his blog post. In her article, Thomson accepted for the sake of argument that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception and has a right to life, and she offered an analogy. In this analogy, she posited that a person wakes up to discover that she was kidnapped and that the circulatory system of a famous unconscious violinist with a fatal kidney ailment has been plugged into the kidnapped person’s circulatory system such that withdrawing the assistance would kill the violinist. She also offered a second analogy that presented unborn babies as people-seeds drifting in the air like pollen, landing, sprouting, and taking root.

In his blog post, Orentlicher drew on the violinist analogy and argued that abortion “can be viewed as a withdrawal of assistance,” rather than a “killing,”[5] and that the pregnant woman “seeking an abortion is saying that she no longer wants to give of her body to sustain the life of her fetus.” The law, he urged, does not require “some people to give of their bodies to sustain the lives of other persons.” Consequently, requiring pregnant women to continue their pregnancies until delivery would single them out “for a legal responsibility that no one else must assume,” and the Equal Protection Clause “protects people from being treated differently than other people.”[6] His argument was thus that, even if fetuses are persons, pregnant mothers (assisted by health care providers) should be able to decide lawfully to “kill” or withdraw their assistance and that a ban on abortion before viability would violate basic legal principles by subjecting pregnant women to unequal treatment. For Orentlicher, the analysis changes at viability because fetuses can then survive on their own without their mothers’ assistance.

(1)  No Logical Fallacy Established

Orentlicher’s point did not establish a fetal personhood fallacy or a logical fallacy in the actual Rubio/Huckabee argument.[7] As shown above, Orentlicher misstated the Rubio/Huckabee argument, which undercuts his attempt to attack the logical form of their argument. Additionally, his beliefs or viewpoint may lead him to disagree with one or more of the premises in the actual Rubio/Huckabee argument, but disagreeing with a premise does not, in and of itself, demonstrate that a premise is false.

(2) Problems Related to Equal Protection

Orentlicher’s argument concedes fetal personhood for the sake of argument, attempts to create a dilemma or conflict between pregnant mothers and their unborn children, and then employs the Equal Protection Clause to urge that basic principles of law cannot allow or require this dilemma or conflict to be resolved by banning abortions. However, pointing to an equal protection issue does not, in and of itself, establish that a premise in the actual Rubio/Huckabee argument is false—it may just be that the issue needs to be addressed.[8]

If personhood is conceded (at least for the sake of argument as Thomson and Orentlicher do, but also because science has demonstrated that new living human beings begin at conception), defenders of abortion face their own equal protection problem. Their problem is that no other group of persons or class of living human beings is subjected to the treatment unborn babies are subjected to in abortion. Stated differently, among living human beings in the United States, only unborn children are subjected to legally-sanctioned tearing, cutting, dismembering, and poisoning. Thus, in the case of abortion, the youngest members of the human community are treated differently than other members, and the current legal regime is instrumental in subjecting them (1 million of them per year in the United States, and over 60 million over the last four and a half decades) to this unequal treatment.

(3) Problems with Thomson’s Argument and Analogy

The argument that Orentlicher pointed to in an attempt to show the “flaw in the Rubio/Huckabee logic”—Thomson’s argument and the violinist analogy she posited to support it—does not apply in most abortion cases. Thomson’s violinist analogy applies (at most) to a small percentage of the total number of abortions in which the pregnancies resulted from rape or incest. These special cases are distinct from the vast majority of cases in which sexual relations are engaged in knowingly and voluntarily and in which duties spring from that knowing and voluntary participation in sexual acts that have the potential of resulting in conception. Thus, with most pregnancies, the pregnant mother is not in a situation analogous to that of the sleeping kidnapped person into whom the violinist is “plugged.” Furthermore, the Thomson/Orentlicher argument is intensely individualistic and shows little regard for the web of relationships that comprise human community. This web includes mothers and their babies, other children and grandparents, spouses and sexual partners, extended family and neighbors.

(4) Problems with Orentlicher’s Analogy of Abortions and “Withdrawals of Assistance”

Orentlicher’s analogizing of abortions to “withdrawals of assistance” poses its own problems. For instance, setting to the side some of the “artificial” techniques used in assisted reproduction, pregnancy results from natural processes, and it is itself a natural process. But, the term “withdrawal of assistance” typically refers to the withdrawal of “artificial” assistance supplied by machines and other technology up to which the patient is hooked (recall that Thomson posited that the violinist was “plugged into” the other person), and thus it is “artificial” life support that is withdrawn in end-of-life situations.[9]

Additionally, analogizing abortion to the withdrawal of assistance likens pregnant women to machines, and this rhetorical move seemingly strips pregnant women of human qualities and human agency. Furthermore, the methods and procedures used in abortions (e.g., tearing babies into small pieces that can be sucked through a tube, cutting and dismembering them, and poisoning them) are not analogous to the methods and procedures employed when the assistance of life-supporting technology is provided and later withdrawn. And finally, when decisions are made regarding the withdrawal of assistance in end-of-life situations, the consent of the person from whom assistance is withdrawn is typically a matter of consequence to the law and courts.


In his blog post, Orentlicher charged Rubio and Huckabee with making an argument that was logically flawed, but Orentlicher did not accurately state the Rubio/Huckabee argument. Furthermore, he did not demonstrate a logical fallacy in their actual argument. At most, he highlighted an equal protection issue to be addressed. Furthermore, the Thomson/Orentlicher argument has some substantial problems of its own, as discussed above.

But, beyond logic, premises, and fallacies, the words used in the Rubio/Huckabee argument and the Thomson/Orentlicher argument deserve further reflection. In discourse on abortion, the defenders of abortion play word games and use euphemisms in an attempt to make harsh realities more palatable, to obscure the nature of the unborn, and to conceal what an abortion is and does. For instance, Orentlicher suggested thinking of abortions as “withdrawals of assistance,” instead of “killings.” Thomson and Orentlicher consistently used the term “fetus” when referring to the unborn—not “baby,” “child,” “human being,” “human life,” or “person.” Thomson analogized fetuses to wind-distributed people-seeds, and she wrote: “the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. A newly fertilized ovum, a newly implanted clump of cells, is no more a person than an acorn is an oak tree.”[10]

By contrast, Rubio and Huckabee refer to unborn babies as “human lives” and “human beings,” as “persons” and “people,” and they manifest a belief that all human life (including the lives of unborn children) is worthy of legal protection. The language of Rubio and Huckabee is language of inclusion—they embrace the equal dignity of all persons (by which they mean all human beings). They advocate keeping membership in the human community open for all and affording the protection of the law to all, and they oppose subjecting the youngest, most vulnerable members of the human community to different treatment.

The language used in arguments regarding abortion and unborn children matters. Terminology signals the proponent’s vision of the human community, and it indicates whether the proponent has an inclusive view that embraces the equal dignity of all living human beings and welcomes all into that community. It also bears noting that the exclusion of some human beings from membership in the human community has a terrible legacy, and select examples of modern dehumanization involving Native Americans (“Indians [are] . . . inferior to the Anglo-Saxon” and “An Indian is not a person within the meaning of the Constitution”), African-Americans (“A negro of the African race was regarded as an article of property” and “In the eyes of the law . . . the slave is not a person”), European Jews (“Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human” and “The Reichsgericht [the supreme court of the German Reich from 1879 to 1945] itself refused to recognize Jews . . . as ‘persons’ in the legal sense”), and women (“Women are domestic animals” and “The statutory word ‘person’ did not in these circumstances include women”) help us to appreciate the profound implications of such exclusion.[11]

Those who pay close attention to the actual Rubio/Huckabee argument will see that they are offering an inclusive vision of the human community that welcomes all living human beings, including unborn babies and their mothers, and extends to them the equal protection of the laws. This is one point in their argument that Orentlicher seemed to miss.

[1] In addition to his law faculty position, Professor Orentlicher is co-director of Indiana University’s William S. and Christine L. Hall Center for Law and Health and teaches as an adjunct professor at Indiana University’s School of Medicine. The author of this essay earned a graduate degree in health law, policy, and bioethics from the law school and was a student of Professor Orentlicher.

[2] Unfortunately, Orentlicher did not cite or quote the Rubio and Huckabee statements he was referencing. But, because his post was published on August 11, 2015, it is likely that he was responding to statements made by GOP candidates during their August 6, 2015 debate and in the days following the debate.

[3] See Judith Jarvis Thomson, In Defense of Abortion, Philosophy & Public Affairs 47-66 (Autumn 1971).

[4] The Rubio/Huckabee argument includes additional arguments, such as the argument regarding what science has shown. These additional arguments are not addressed here. On the argument that science has shown that a new human being begins at conception, see Patrick Lee, Christopher O. Tollefsen, & Robert P. George, Marco Rubio Is Right: The Life of a New Human Being Begins at Conception,, and Philip Hawley, Jr., On Abortion, Medical Science Is Still Waiting to Be Heard,

[5] In her article, Thomson used the word “kill.”

[6] The Equal Protection Clause is found in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, but by “reverse incorporation” the United States Supreme Court has held that equal protection principles apply to the federal government through the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

[7] As noted above, “fetal personhood fallacy” is the term Orentlicher used in the title of his post, and he used the terms “logic” and “fallacy” in the first two paragraphs of his post.

[8] Other legal principles would also be relevant to the question of a pregnant mother’s responsibility or duty to her unborn child, such as a duty to rescue or help when that person has a special relationship or has created the hazardous situation that causes the peril.

[9] The contrasting of natural processes with artificial techniques here is not intended to suggest moral approval or disapproval of one or the other. Rather, this contrast is highlighted to show a distinction that undercuts Orentlicher’s analogy of abortions and withdrawals of assistance.

[10] Thomson, supra, at 48. Nevertheless, she seemed to recognize that the argument that a fetus is not a person faces an uphill battle and may be a losing argument. She wrote:

I am inclined to agree . . . that the prospects for “drawing a line” in the development of the fetus look dim. I am inclined to think also that we shall probably have to agree that the fetus has already become a human person well before birth. Indeed, it comes as a surprise when one first learns how early in its life it begins to acquire human characteristics. By the tenth week, for example, it already has a face, arms and legs, fingers and toes; it has internal organs, and brain activity is detectable.

Id. at 47-48.

With the release of the Center for Medical Progress videos, it has become apparent that Planned Parenthood does not actually see unborn babies as newly implanted clumps of cells. Rather, aborted babies are a ready supply of human organs, tissues, and parts that Planned Parenthood can sell.

[11] See William Brennan, Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives 6-7 (1995) (charting “the semantics of oppression” and citing sources for these quotations).

By / Jul 31

Earlier this year, National Geographic’s ran a cover story called, “The War on Science.” In the feature article, writer Joel Achenbach addressed a number of issues about which many people dispute the received scientific wisdom.

Ranging from the moon landing to evolutionary theory, Achenbach detailed why skeptics refuse to accept what to many scientists seems established fact. Personally, I’m with Achenbach on the moon landing, vaccinations, and GMOs; on climate change and evolutionary theory, not so much.

My views on these matters are immaterial to a much different and urgent scientific issue, one Achenbach neglected and which regularly receives at best spare coverage in the popular media: The scientific case against abortion.

There is no question that human personhood begins at conception. Not just human life – any cell in the body represents “human life” – but a person, developing and unformed, but no less human than you or me.

Even National Geographic itself, in its beautiful DVD, “In the Womb,” demonstrates vividly that it is an unborn child that begins developing at conception. Her DNA is unchanged from the moment when the sperm and egg fuse – the moment of conception.

Of course, champions of abortion refuse to acknowledge the personhood of the unborn child. Referring to the child as a “fetus” provides a veneer of detachment from the humanness of that which is being suctioned out of or dismembered within a woman’s womb.

Too, “fetus” simply means “unborn young,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. So, for those readers not Latinophiles, let’s use that phrasing: babies within the womb are “unborn young.” Quite so. We’ll go with it.

The Left jettisons science in the name of radical personal autonomy and sexual volition. It cannot abide even modest measures to protect the unborn young. Whether clinic regulations to ensure the safety and cleanliness of abortion centers, prohibiting partial birth abortions, ultrasound laws that require women to see the reality of what they are contemplating abortion, the stridency of those favoring no restrictions on abortion is remarkable.

It’s also understandable: If they concede, in even the slightest degree, that the unborn child has any value, their case is lost. Thus, they will not dialog honestly about the unborn young (and their mothers) who are being victimized by a predatory abortion industry. For example, on Planned Parenthood of America’s (PPFA) “prenatal care” webpage, the authors assiduously avoid any mention of a baby’s health or well-being. In fact, one would think the woman had a growth in her body not dissimilar to a tumor except for a few references to a “fetus” and one reference to “embryo” with respect to having an ultrasound.

Interestingly, PPFA lists a number of things that can be found during an ultrasound; the sex of the unborn youth or her visibly obvious humanity are not among them. It also mentions, repetitively, such things as fetal abnormalities, Down Syndrome, and related matters. Such information might well be useful, but does continuous reference to the possibility of something being wrong with the unborn youth not speak to a different, darker agenda than simply a safe and healthy pregnancy? Especially given that roughly 90 percent of Down’s babies are aborted in the womb?

PPFA also notes that in amniocentesis, “there is a slight chance of infection, injury to the fetus, or early labor.” So: If the mother wants to keep the baby, “injury to” her unborn youth matters. Bear in mind that this is the same organization that provides more than 325,000 abortions annually. In other words, injury to unborn youth only matters if that youth is wanted. Subjective preference determines what’s right? How is this possibly moral?

The recently videos in which Planned Parenthood personnel speak casually about marketing the organs of unborn aborted children add new, oppressive weight to PPFA’s long history of predation on the unborn and their mothers. Here is one excerpt that captures the gory dehumanization that is Planned Parenthood’s stock-in-trade, from their senior director of medical research, Dr. Deborah Nucatola:

We’ve been very good at getting heart, lung, liver, because we know that, so I’m not gonna crush that part, I’m gonna basically crush below, I’m gonna crush above, and I’m gonna see if I can get it all intact.

Then there’s this, from a filmed recording of Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Director’s Council:

Gatter talks about changing the abortion technique to get intact specimens, changing from a rather violent suction method that would destroy tissue to what she calls an IPAS, which is a reference to a nonprofit company that makes and distributes “manual vacuum aspirators” which would be a less harmful way to get at the internal organs. She said there would be protocol issues with the patient but that she saw no problem with it. She calls it a “less crunchy” way to get intact organs.

This is the use of medical science to wage war against unborn young. It is the abuse of science in the cause of death. I’d call that a war on the little ones in the womb and their mothers. And on science itself.

Earlier this year Senator Rand Paul, rightly aggravated by a reporters insistent badgering of him regarding abortion, said, “Why don’t we ask the DNC (Democratic National Committee): Is it OK to kill a 7-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and go ask (DNC Chairwoman) Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a 7-pound baby that’s just not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and ask Debbie when she’s willing to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, come back to me.”

Schultz responded, “I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story.”

Not for Senator Paul: “It sounds like her answer is yes, that she’s OK with killing a 7-pound baby. Debbie’s position, which I guess is the Democratic Party’s position, that an abortion all the way up until the day of birth would be fine, I really think most pro-choice people would be uncomfortable with that.”

This is a defining example of the incapacity of advocates of abortion-on-demand to interact intelligently with the reality of life within the womb. It is indicative of their willingness to wage war on science by refusing to deal with it.

Should Ms. Wasserman Schultz and her allies in what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death” ever concede that even the slightest provision should be made to protect or enhance the life of unborn youth, they know their house of anti-science regarding abortion would collapse.

In George Orwell’s 1984, “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”

These ministries have nothing on the proponents of choice (i.e., abortion) or the designation of the child as merely an untoward, unwelcome collection of blood and tissue.

A fetus – I mean, an unborn youth – and her mother deserve so much better than to be victims of this war on science.

Here are some excellent resources on how unborn youth develop and what actually takes place in the womb:

What Science Reveals about Fetal Pain and Planned Parenthood: Abortion Numbers Are Up, both by Arina Grossu, Director of FRC’s Center for Human Dignity.

Fetal development: The 1st trimester – The Mayo Clinic

Slideshow: Fetal Development Month by Month – Web M.D.