Sunday, September 14, 2008

We Survived Ike!

Not an especially spiritual title, but an intensely spiritual event nonetheless. God is good, and he has preserved us. Events like this are a wonderful reminder of what is really important. Our family is growing closer as we work together to deal with the remnants of this storm. We have been very fortunate, and we pray for those facing greater challenges than ours.

I expect to hear stories of God's provision and protection in the coming days. It's not prophecy on my part (more about that in another post) merely a belief in God's goodness.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Creating Humans

My wanderings along the roadways between home and work have taken me into another of the Modern Scholars series of recorded lectures. This time it's "Creating Humans: Ethical Questions Where Reproduction and Science Collide." I picked it up because it covers the ethical aspects of some recent advances in the science, but I pretty much already knew what I thought about all that (not an unusual attitude for me, I'm afraid). I don't know that the lectures changed my mind a whole lot, but they did make me think more about the real complexity of the issues that I so easily paint black or white.

The issues that stand out as most difficult to resolve are these:
  1. At what point, exactly, does a person exist having not existed prior to that point?
  2. What are the acceptable methods (processes, procedures, whatever) we can use to create new people?
  3. How much are we allowed to interfere with the development of another person in order to produce characteristics we desire in them?
The lecturer came at most of these issues from a non-spiritual direction, so there were lots of things I could take exception with in his thinking. Nevertheless, uncertainty remains in my mind.

At what point does a person come into existence?

I thought this was one I was fairly certain about. Life begins at conception. Easy. The problem is, that position works best for the "normal" mechanics of reproduction, and even then there are some questions. For me as a Christian, a person exists when God creates one. I think that's when the person has a soul, but I can't find much in the Bible on the mechanics of soul-body connection. One problem with this occurring at conception is that that at some point after conception and embryo can either divide into twins or remain a single individual. Before this point it's not clear whether there's one soul or two, so perhaps there's none?

So I guess I'm left believing that a person comes into existence some time after conception but well before birth. That's why I don't think that a woman ever has the absolute "right to choose" abortion. This is not just a question about her right to control her own body. The life of another human being is involved, and the woman does not have the absolute right to take that life. It's the same reason parents aren't free to kill their children.

In terms of abortion, the issue of twins doesn't have much practical impact because it happens so early in the pregnancy (it does affect the ethics of day-after pills). It has a bigger impact on some of the other issues though.

What are the allowable methods of creating new people?

I already knew there were issues here, and the lecturer didn't help clear any of them up for me. Here are some of the ways new people might be created:
  • The old-fashioned natural way. (Ask Griff about it if you must.)
  • Artificial insemination (AI) - mostly the normal mechanics with a bit of an assist at the beginning. Some issues of parentage (who's the father?).
  • In vitro fertilization (IVF) - conception occurs in a petri dish, the rest is the normal mechanics. More parentage issues (father and/or mother).
  • Surrogacy - either AI or IVF followed by growth and delivery by a 3rd-party. Lots of parentage issues. The parents may not be involved at all!
  • Reproductive cloning - make another one just like me. Luckily, it doesn't work yet except for sheep.
My thinking on this is that it doesn't matter much HOW we make new people. As far as I'm concerned all of the above-listed methods would result in real people, souls and all. I think some of these methods involve a lot more risk of problems resulting from our incomplete understanding of biology, so they should be avoided, but all make people.

There is a thorny little problem with IVF and the notion that life begins at conception. The normal process of IVF involves the creation of many fertilized embryos, one of which is selected for implantation. So what about the rest of them? They are typically discarded. Part of the debate over stem cell research involves the use of these "discarded" embryos as a source of embryonic stem cells. I don't know quite what to think about IVF, but it bothers me some.

How much can people interfere in other people's development?

Parents do this all the time, in face we demand it of them. Mothers try to eat right during pregnancy. We expect parents to provide stimulation so their children develop thinking skills. They teach them to share their toys. They don't let them eat too much junk food and get fat. It goes on and on.

So, should people be able to use IVF to select only male embryos to implant? Should they be able to abort a pregnacy if the embryo's sex is wrong? What if antenatal screening identifies a serious condition like Down's Syndrome? Can that pregnancy be terminated? All of these are unacceptable to me as a life-begins-at-conception guy, but all are commonly practiced and accepted by our society.

The final issue, and we're just approaching this as a feasible technology is genetic enhancement. It will soon be possible to "adjust" the genes in an embryo to change the characteristics of the person who will be born. These changes might be trivial, hair color, eye color, etc. They could also be more significant characteristics like intelligence, musical aptitude, physical strength and size, and so on. If we are able to make these adjustments, should we? In a sense we do this already in that we tend to choose mates with characteristics we find desireable. Is there anything wrong with being more efficient in our methods? I think I'm OK with this, but I suspect it comes with some risks we don't understand just yet. I don't think we can avoid learning how to genetically enhance ourselves, but I hope we do it carefully.

So, where are we going?

I don't find many prohibitions in the Bible regarding the acceptability of scientific reproduction methods. I do hear a clear message that God thinks people are extremely important. I think we need to worry more about how this technology affects the the relationship between people, and make sure that we place as high a value on himan life as God does.