September/October, 1998 Volume XIII Number 2|
Where in the world are we headed?
By Cathy Ramey
In July, the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD), an associate of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, held its fifth annual international bioethics conference. Every year the conference gives opportunity for scholars-physicians, pastors, theologians and others-to gather and discuss some of the nattier social, medical, and scientific problems facing Christians throughout the world.
This year the topic revolved around human reproduction. But dismiss from your mind the simple charts of male and female reproductive anatomy and graphics about the joining of egg and sperm in a woman's body.
Human reproduction at the sunset of the twentieth century has evolved into processes that are nothing short of amazing, and at the same time, morally alarming.
Picture this . . .
Babies frozen in suspended animation until they are "needed," either for research or to fulfill another's desire to be a parent.
Babies custom-made, in a sense, to rule out genetic defects or to supply replacement parts for another person.
Want a blond baby boy but brown hair and girls run in your family? Nevermind, a little genetic surgery and you can have the child of your dreams.
In reality, this is not a dream, it is a nightmare, and one that is fast coming true. Already hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human embryos-human beings-are frozen around the country. These are the offspring of in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures which have produced an excess, a human surplus of sorts.
The artificial womb is only short years away from being perfected, a device that will make carrying a baby for nine months before birth sound old-fashioned. Such technology has already radically changed the way men and women view each other.
Now picture this . . .
You are at a Christian bioethics conference, and a woman is introduced and brought to the podium to talk about her work among infertile couples. The speaker is Jolene Zivnuska, a certified nurse practitioner who proudly asserts that her infertility clinic experience is superior to many others. After all, she tells the audience, her facility is careful to limit the number of embryos placed within the womb of a baby-starved, wanna-be mom.
What happens to those other embryos?
Well, unless you are a Christian (or one of those unfortunate embryos) it really may not matter. But to a Christian the biblical and scientific evidence is clear; life begins at conception, that point in time when human egg and sperm join together to form an ovum . . . a new and complete human being. Under this view, being "careful" not to allow some embryos the opportunity to implant isn't quite so laudable.
The fact that such a presentation could be given at a Christian bioethics conference, without the speaker having herself been selected against (a term used when discarding traits or embryos), is proof of the moral schizophrenia facing the Church over helping men and women to both control the number of their offspring downward and at the same time make a baby for those couples demanding a child of their own.
Flash on another speaker:
Jeannie French and her husband, a Roman Catholic couple who fought infertility for years before they "sought out a physician who could agree with [their] moral beliefs." In the long run the couple determined to try for a pregnancy by undergoing IVF.
Two embryos made the trip into French's womb, successfully implanting to give the couple twins, a boy and a girl. But just four months into the pregnancy, Jeannie French found out that her little girl had a problem. The baby's brain was growing outside of her skull. Naturally, the pressure was on for the couple to elect for an abortion.
Fortunately, the French's are made of sturdier moral stuff than those offering them advice and they turned down every "pregnancy reduction" (abortion) suggestion. After a cesarean section-scheduled because the baby girl would not have survived a normal, vaginal birth-the French's had just six hours to say goodbye to their daughter. Eventually her breathing slowed and she died, too fragile to survive life outside the womb.
The audience applauded loudly and appeared to beam with admiration for this woman who endured an enormously difficult pregnancy, knowing that her child could not survive, opting to keep her daughter safe for a time instead of succumbing to the pressure to end her baby's life prematurely. It is a touching story.
But back up nine months.
Consider that even as we speak of the difficulties surrounding care for severely handicapped infants, we fail to address the possible causes for at least some of their injuries. Baby French, after all, went through some unusual manipulation before ever finding a place in her mother's womb. Jeannie French's egg was chemically treated to encourage sperm penetration, and once conceived, Baby French took a high-speed trip through a long syringe in order to eventually arrive in her mother's uterus.
In vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies are hailed as a great blessing for those without a child, but the blessing for one is paid for, perhaps, by the injury to another. Jeannie French's little boy may be "perfect" in every way, and we are glad of that, but his perfection came at the cost of what might be argued to be a "throw away" baby girl.
That sounds harsh, but the reality is that IVF, genetic manipulation, and cloning technologies all involve a certain risk and failure rate. These risk and failure rates would be considered unconscionable if we were speaking of such experimentation on older, particularly born, human beings. But since they involve a class of persons that have been effectively, legally moved off of our radar screen, enormous hazards are acceptable when dealing with them.
That leads me to another vignette. Picture this . . .
A leading ob/gyn ends the three-day conference with his own rebuke to the crowd who has gathered to hear him speak. After nearly twenty minutes of preparing (softening?) the audience with anecdotes about his own Christian experience, including his desire to be a simple medical missionary rather than an ob/gyn, he remarks that he lives in "the real world" rather than an apparently "absurd" world.
An absurd world is one where Christian values are carried out to their logical conclusion. In his real world there are sacrifices that must be made, including the loss of "zygotes," a developmental code word for a very young human being.
Dr. Tom Elkins has warned the audience that they will likely be at odds with him. He offers that it is necessary to allow for "some zygote [human] loss" in order to make life safe for others. In his case, the "zygote loss" he appears to be most willing to accept are those whose mothers use hormonal birth control-drugs and devices that can result in pregnancy but end in miscarriage as the embryonic child fails to find a hospitable environment in the mother's womb.
By now you are likely wondering how it is that I can refer to this as a Christian bioethics conference. After all, each of the speakers I've referred to need to do more than a little fine-tuning of their theology and practice to bring them into accord with Scripture's high view of human life. But Tom Elkins, the last speaker I cited said it best when he remarked that many would not agree with his position, because, in fact, the overwhelming sense of the rest of the conference was incompatible with the world view that allows Jolene Zivnuska to elect non-implantation of embryonic humans created in the lab; that accepts the risk to girl Baby French as long as we can assure that there will also be those successful, "perfect," boy Baby Frenchs' as well; and that sees some newly conceived humans as expendable in order to allow us the freedom to practice sex apart from the risk of reproduction.
With nearly forty physicians, ethicists, theologians and other medical and scientific professionals presenting on everything from surrogate motherhood to the legal status of the early embryo; from the abortion effects of the birth control pill to discussions over the practical divorce between sex and baby-making, the CBHD conference was a tremendous opportunity for participants to challenge each other and be challenged by those involved in what have become every day ethical decisions.
Over 400 men and women, most from the United States, but some from around the globe, crowded into the Trinity campus chapel in order to re-evaluate technologies that are advancing so quickly that we have little time to settle on the moral questions of one before another problem presents itself.
Take for example the seemingly simple question of providing gene therapy to eradicate a devastating disease of the brain. Or how about making available vaccine technology that could bring another disease to an abrupt end in just one generation? What of the ability to identify and correct genetic abnormalities even before fertilization?
Each new technology, built upon layers of research, can make earlier ethical questions seem almost irrelevant. The discussion no longer centers on whether or not it is morally licit to fertilize human gametes in a petri dish in the lab, it now revolves around whether or not an infertility specialist is on morally sound ground by picking and choosing which embryos will be offered the opportunity to implant.
The dizzying pace at which science and medicine are adopting new practices requires that Christians insist upon a slow-down, one that will allow the basic questions to be answered before new ones are brought to the fore. But such a slow-down agenda is nearly impossible in the competition to break into new frontiers of research and treatment.
Some, particularly those scientists who wear lab blinders that only allow them to see such technologies as objective data, eschew the subject of bioethics. The discussion insists that they do something rather uncomfortable in that it demands that scientific and medical advances be brought to a level where they are accountable within a spiritual framework, the Judeo-Christian world view. In a post-Hippocratic culture, one in which physicians no longer see themselves as under oath to patients, fellow practitioners, and God, such oversight from others is more than a little discomfiting.
Taken from another perspective though, these questions are both profound and necessary if twentieth century Christians are to begin the new century with a sense of the boundaries required by faith. Such "limit-setting" is almost a dirty word in a society drunk on its own progression, so the insights, encouragement and support of the Christian bioethics community is critical.
In a practical sense, the CBHD conference is a natural stomping ground for people who have invested themselves in protesting abortion and other medical ills endorsed by society. It is both a training theater and a forum for subjects that have been hotly debated by what might be called "activist Christians" for the past three decades.
It is an opportunity to rub elbows with some of this century's great Christian thinkers, and an occasion for chagrin as it becomes clear that good, well-intentioned Christian professionals often lack the fundamental critical thinking skills to lead them through the maze of moral dilemmas posed by our Brave New World. It is a playground where Christian professionals appear to struggle for an upright position in a culture which has thrown off the shackles of Christianity in favor of raw scientific humanism..
Each year the Center for Bioethics has expanded its network for reinforcing a godly world view among professionals. It is a vital resource for those who are out in clinics and hospitals every day, dealing with patients who have come to expect that any and everything should be done to insure them a child. Save your pennies, because next year's conference on implementing Christian principles in society promises to be well worth the investment.
Brave new world technology
© 1997 Advocates for Life Ministries