Embryonic Enigma

  Two intellectuals recently debated a timely moral question: Is the human embryo a tiny human being, worthy of protection? Or is it just a cluster of cells we can and should use in research? One of the debaters was a Christian philosopher; the other, a scientist. Now, you might assume that the Christian argued theology and that the scientist kept to empirical facts. If so, you'd be wrong. The moral boxing match took place in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. In the left corner, defending embryo destruction, was David Baltimore, president of the California Institute of Technology and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. In the right corner, defending the inherent dignity of embryos, was Robert George, the distinguished Princeton moral and political philosopher. George pointed out that embryos possess the “epigenetic primordia” for internally directed growth and maturation as distinct, self-integrating, human organisms. Each embryo is therefore already -- and not merely potentially -- a living member of the human species. As George put it, "The being that is now you or me is the same being that was once an adolescent, and before that a toddler, and before that an infant, and before that a fetus, and before that an embryo. To have destroyed the being that is you or me at any of these stages would have been to destroy you or me." Baltimore could deny none of this. After all, George was simply pointing out the stubborn facts of science and logic. Instead, Baltimore made his appeal based on subjective feeling. "To me," Baltimore said, "a tiny mass of cells that has never been in a uterus is hardly a human being." Somebody should give Baltimore a history lesson. The past warns of the danger of making personal opinion the basis for defining humanity. Sixty years ago, the Nazis justified horrific medical experiments on Jews because to them, Jews were "hardly human beings." A hundred and fifty years ago, white Southerners enslaved black Africans because in their opinion, Africans were "hardly human beings." Dr. George is right: Biologically, human embryos are fully human. The only question remaining is, will we protect them, or will we allow some humans, because of their age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, to be killed to benefit others? As George notes, we should recoil from and resist defining humanity based on such morally irrelevant criteria. Where would this leave the weak, the frail, and the handicapped? They'd end up in the researcher's lab, that's where. It's worth noting that George, a Christian, made his case without appealing to religious authority. Instead, he confronted his opponent -- a man of science -- with facts of science that utterly devastated the case for killing embryonic humans. In doing so, he proved that Christians have nothing to fear from science. The Judeo-Christian worldview always conforms to reality. We should not be surprised that science backs up biblical doctrine -- doctrine which teaching that our humanity begins at conception. We ought to remember this the next time we get into a discussion about embryonic research with our unsaved friends -- or when you talk to your senators or congressmen. We don't have to argue theology, which they may not accept. As Dr. George puts it, science will do just fine. For further reading: "Stem Cell Research: A Debate." The Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2001.


Chuck Colson


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