Begotten or made?
The brave new world of manufacturing humanity is an assault upon human dignity
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Warnings of a “brave new world” are so common as to be clichéd. But one recent technological innovation isn’t just inching us toward Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian vision, for it takes us to the very precipice of a world where human life is a manufactured product.
The Weizmann Institute of Science, a research group based in Israel, says it has created an “embryo model,” without utilizing human gametes (sperm or egg), that replicates a 14-day-old human embryo. (Fourteen days is the legal cut off for embryonic research in many countries.) The process began with human embryonic naïve stem cells chemically manipulated to produce the types of cells that develop into a human embryo.
The resulting structure “resembles, but is not identical to” human life at its nascent stages. The “embryo model” spontaneously developed and “even released hormones that turned a pregnancy test positive in the lab.” The goal of the research is to evade the ethical and technical challenges imposed by a direct study of post-implantation human embryos. Scientists hope to learn more about how life develops in its earliest stages by studying this human-like entity.
The production of humanlike “entities” may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but, sadly, this research is of a piece with broader trends in reproductive technologies. Embryonic stem cell research has been ongoing for decades now. In vitro fertilization has been in use since 1978. Human cloning remains an alluring prospect for many researchers. The next frontier involves, among other things, the production and use of artificial wombs.
Several considerations are especially relevant for Christians.
First, the origins of this embryo-like entity were stem cells harvested from a human embryo, which is itself a morally illicit practice. The Weizmann scientists are seeking to circumvent the “limitations” placed on embryonic research by creating this embryo model, but the use of human embryonic stem cells as the starting material in the research is intrinsically unethical.
As far back as the George W. Bush administration, politicians and lawmakers have sought out compromise positions when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. Bush famously banned federal funding (but not private funding) of the creation of new embryonic stem cells but permitted research on cell lines already produced. This policy was overturned in 2009 by President Barack Obama, with the blessing of Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health and a professing evangelical Christian.
The research supposedly resumed under “strict ethical guidelines,” but there can be no “ethical” research that involves life-destroying technologies. If life begins at conception, as the Bible teaches and as Christian theology entails, then there can be no compromise with these kinds of human experimentation.
Second, Christians must also reconsider other reproductive technologies that are ethically problematic. Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly understand the moral dimensions of the abortion debate, but other bioethical issues go largely unquestioned. For example, in vitro fertilization (IVF) often involves the destruction of “spare” human embryos, or else their being “frozen” indefinitely. Even in cases when all of the fertilized eggs produced in IVF are given a chance at implantation, questions remain as to whether or not human life should be artificially produced and risked in this way.
Other technologies, such as surrogacy, raise the same worries. Without discounting the enormous pain of infertility, Christians should never adopt a “by any means necessary” approach to reproduction. This is not to suggest that the many human lives produced by technological advances are less valuable, but Christians should not ignore the ethical problems created by technologies that may have otherwise positive benefits.
Third, in a broader scope, we should also reckon with what it means to be human in the first place. In an important work, ethicist Oliver O’Donovan carefully analyzes the ethical problems raised by reproductive technologies. But he also evaluates the understanding of human origins involved. Are we begotten or made? Is human life the product of a laboratory scientist or the fruit of human love? Drawing on an (albeit imperfect) analogy to the Son of God and His eternal “begottenness” from the Father (and therefore His possession of the very same nature as the Father), O’Donovan warns that boundary-pushing reproductive technologies would risk dehumanizing those who were simply “made” and not “begotten” from our common human nature.
In the end, human hubris cannot supplant divine sovereignty. Our Towers of Babel must eventually fall. Any human lives produced by unethical means will still be under the watchful care of a benevolent God. God alone is the “Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9). And God judges with absolute severity those who would despise the little ones, whose angels always see the face of the Father in heaven (Matthew 18:10). As the late Pope Benedict XVI once said concerning life-destroying research: “Here there is a problem that we cannot get around; no one can dispose of human life. An insurmountable limit to our possibilities of doing and of experimenting must be established. The human being is not a disposable object, but every single individual represents God's presence in the world.”
After rebellious humanity has had its final word, an even newer and braver world awaits, one in which righteousness dwells and where death—even of the smallest among us—will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.