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Culture Friday: Alabama Supreme Court rules embryos are children


WORLD Radio - Culture Friday: Alabama Supreme Court rules embryos are children

Plus, a transgender funeral at a landmark Catholic church and AI companions

An embryologist taking out a vial containing frozen embryos from a liquid nitrogen tank Getty Images/Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Bloomberg

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: It’s Friday the 23rd of February, 2024.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Lindsay Mast.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

It’s time for Culture Friday, and joining us now is John Stonestreet. He’s president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast.

Morning, John!


BROWN: Well, a tremendous ruling in my state John. In an eight to one decision, the Alabama State Supreme Court has basically declared that a person’s a person…no matter how small.

Here are the details of the case: three couples who produced embryos with the help of IVF technology, stored them in Mobile. Someone with no authorization walks into the area where the frozen embryos are stored and inadvertently destroys them. The couples sued and the lower courts ruled the embryos were not covered as children.

Now the high court in Alabama declared that IVF embryos are legally defined as children under the state’s law and constitution and deserve protection, regardless of developmental stage or physical location, whether in a womb or in a freezer.

Why is this a game-changer John for those who are for life and those who are not?

STONESTREET: Well, I may not be quite as optimistic about this decision as you are, Myrna, it’s going to be a surprise. I’m, you know, obviously thankful that the court has been clear that embryos are children. And that is a huge step forward. And it creates a conflict. It’s the same kind of conflict that’s created by a, for example, a double homicide law where a woman who is expecting a child is killed and the child is killed, then the person who is responsible can be charged with two murders, not one. And yet, of course, we know that in many states that have that, the woman could be driving to an abortion clinic at that time, not be killed, and you know, there’s no murder involved whatsoever, at least in the state’s eyes there. And this is a conflict, it’s a conflict in the law. It’s a conflict of understanding. So think about what’s happened here. The court has ruled that these individuals who are responsible for the destruction of these embryos are responsible for the destruction of them and that they’re understood to be children. Do you see the conflict?

For example, we would never let anyone freeze a two-year-old or a one-year-old. In other words, if the individuals responsible for destroying the embryo are guilty, what do you do with the doctors, the medical technologies, and the people who now are responsible for the best estimates are somewhere around 1 million of these embryos, which are now ruled children that are now in freezers? And, you know, in most states, had the parents decided to have them destroyed or, you know, donate them for medical experimentation, things that we would never allow to take place in the case of children, are they guilty now as well?

Look, this has to be resolved, and it has to be resolved in the sense that if the Alabama State Supreme Court decision stands, and of course, look, it’s only applicable to Alabama, this is not, you know, being applied anywhere else in the United States, and this is probably going to create some sort of conflict that the Supreme Court is going to have to kind of weigh in on and if they are, and if we say yes, embryos are children, then the fact that a million embryos are in freezers, that’s as unacceptable as destroying them. Call a freezer what you want; a confined area where someone is deprived of the full rights of their life, that sounds like a prison camp to me. You know, in other words, if we do the math right—now, don’t get me wrong, this is better than before. Don’t get me wrong. When the inconsistencies are exposed in the law, that is actually a good thing. But we got a big issue here that this Supreme Court decision or this state supreme court decision is exposing and revealing.

So I’m glad that they did it, I think it’s it’s a good next step. I don’t think they could have gone further at least, you know, given the case and where it is right now. But there’s a real problem if you’re saying this is a child, and then therefore these individuals that destroyed it are guilty, you’ve got to do something with the ones who put them in the freezer in the first place. And that is a real challenge right there.

BROWN: It ain’t over.

STONESTREET: It ain’t over.

MAST: Well John, another story that ain’t over comes from the Archdiocese of New York after a funeral at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the landmark Catholic church in Manhattan. Last Thursday, it hosted the funeral of a well-known transgender activist and self-identified atheist who went by the name Cecilia Gentili. The New York Times reported around a thousand people attended—many in drag. There were some pretty provocative statements made by those who spoke. Some that aren’t suitable for this broadcast, but here’s what one of the participants said in prayer.

AUDIO: Lord, hear our prayer. And may Cecilia’s community be loved and received and be seen by each other and have access to life affirming healthcare and God’s protection with secure housing. We pray to our Lord Jesus Christ who is full of love! Lord, hear our prayer.

Afterward, the pastor of Saint Patrick’s, Enrique Salvo, released a statement that said, “The cathedral only knew that family and friends were requesting a funeral Mass for a Catholic, and had no idea our welcome and prayer would be degraded in such a sacrilegious and deceptive way.”

So John, we don’t know how the organizers of the funeral were able to get past church leaders without raising red flags, but what does this story say to you about the need for Christian discernment in issues of sexuality?

STONESTREET: Well, I wish I knew more of the details and so on. And I just don’t. And I don’t want to just immediately dismiss out of hand. Yes, they did know, and they’re trying to, you know, kind of cover what became a disaster, in terms of a conflict with Catholic doctrine. Maybe that is the case, I think that’s the most charitable read, I just don’t know enough to bring any clarity.

But what it actually does, I think, point to is that this is an example of just how unclear issues of sexuality and marriage are in a church that at least up until this Pope had an awful lot of clarity on these issues, clarity that many Protestant denominations, you know, looked at and said, “We need that kind of clarity.” When you think about John Paul II’s theology of the body and the work that was done, particularly by American Catholic, you know, resource providers to really articulate what that meant in terms of marriage, and in terms of artificial reproductive technologies, and in terms of what it means to be human, male and female. I mean, all these things are there. Roman Catholic thought leaders here that have really led the way in so many important aspects. And then from the Vatican, you have this thing that was issued about blessing, same sex unions. You have the left side of the Catholic leadership using that confusion as a means to justify what they wanted to do, which was to all but bless sex unions. Of course, we already are seeing that in places like Germany as well. And this sort of chaos, you know, there may be a legitimate explanation, to some degree, why this got so out of hand in a hurry.

But I don’t think there’s an explanation that doesn’t bring into at least at some level, you know, that old saying, you know, “When it’s misty in the pulpit, it’s foggy in the pew.” And I think there is a lack of clarity on this on a leadership level. And I think, too, I mean, we talked about this several weeks ago on a Culture Friday segment, about the connection between what the Pope Francis had said about this blessing and Andy Stanley and the tendency that there is by many wanting to separate theology from pastoral practice. Well, look, this is an absolute example why you can’t do that. There is no separation from theology and pastoral practice. It’s not pastoral unless it’s theologically sound. If it’s not theologically sound, it’s not pastorally helpful. It might be pastorally damnable. That’s what happens when you’re talking about matters of ultimate importance, matters of life and death, matters of God and morality and eternity. You can’t just, you know, ground pastoral practice and niceness, or in the phrase of the day, “radical inclusivity.” When you reduce the gospel down to that, when you reduce what Jesus did down to, “radical inclusivity,” and that’s all it’s grounded in, well, here’s another surprising direction that it can go.

I did not have this on my bingo card even for St. Patrick’s. So you know, I appreciate them being more clear on the tail end of this. And articulating “No, this is not what we’re for.” But that you got to have that sort of clarity upfront, and I think it solves probably more problems in the end.

BROWN: John, as we reported on WORLD Radio News, the U.S. House is forming a task force on artificial intelligence. This bi-partisan group will be exploring legislation to keep us on the cutting edge of AI, while guarding against its potential dangers.

I wonder if this initiative is, as they say, a day late and a dollar short.

Reason I ask is because of the emergence of what’s called companion bots. They come with special features: voice calls, picture exchanges and an emotional connection.

Users pick their own avatar, and you might guess what comes next, sexual fantasies played out. Some use these so-called companion bots to help cope with loneliness which as we’ve talked about before is the latest public health epidemic.

So many red flags John: The idea of virtual characters providing unconditional acceptance, the claims to help with mental health and the threat of AI relationships replacing human relationships.

What do you see as the biggest threat and is a bi-partisan task force equipped to take it on?

STONESTREET: Well, I think the state has to step in into some matters, and this would be one of those. But it’s got to step in and force, I think, tech companies to be responsible for what they’re unleashing. There has to be some sort of, you know, regulation that’s brought in. I know that many of our conservative friends whenever they hear government regulation, you know, have a seizure, and I might be one of them. I’m against almost all government regulation, but there is a role for the state. And that role increases, the less people are able to govern themselves. It's what Chuck Colson said, “It’s the conscience or the constable.”

So if we have a group of people who aren’t good at relationships, who can’t manifest relationships, and are looking for relationships thoroughly 100% on their own terms, that’s going to drive the market demand for this sort of thing. And AI is going to meet it. This isn’t new. Sherry Turkle predicted this back in 2011, in her book Alone Together, that this would be the future decision. In other words, we’re decades in to being catechized, you know, against kind of a level of personal connection and personal responsibility, and particularly in our deepest relationships, and things like marriage, and romance and sexuality have become kind of matters of self fulfillment, not matters of commitment to others. And that’s just a recipe for, well, you can feed that demand in different sorts of ways, you know.

So, I do think that actually, the biggest threat that AI poses is not AI. I think the biggest threat is actually what might be called a pre-existing condition, and it’s represented in this public health epidemic of loneliness. We, if you think about this, we have more means of being connected than any generation could have ever imagined in the history of the world. And we’re alone. In other words, that’s not the fault of the technologies, that’s the fault of, you know, the breakdown of the family, the absence of dads, the increasing lack of commitment to one another, you know, the the inward turn that Carl Truman talks about, looking further and further and further inside for meaning and purpose, rather than our connectivity outside of ourselves with God and others.

So, I think that’s probably the most important thing that parents, for example, in preparing their kids for this brave new world can do. And I owe that thought, by the way, to a friend, a new friend who works in this area. You know, he’s got some vested interest in it and I said, well, but he’s also really clear eyed on the threats. And I said, “Well, what are you doing? What’s the most important thing that you’re doing for your kids?” And he said, “I’m teaching them how to have good relationships.”

And I think, you know, I know that sounds pretty basic, or as my, you know, my good friend back from Tennessee would say, “It ain’t rocket surgery.” You know, it’s just doing what Jesus told us to do, it’s the greatest commandment which is love God, and the second one, love others. That’s going to take on some real, tangible benefit. And it’s going to be really necessary to not, you know, kind of lose our souls in the midst of all this.

MAST: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center and host of the Breakpoint podcast. Thanks so much, John.

STONESTREET: Thank you both.

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