Personhood: The Future of the Prolife Movement in the 21st Century
by Daniel Becker, President, Georgia Right to Life
[W]e move from the taking of life [abortion] through making life [IVF] to what I have somewhat crudely termed the faking of life: the capacity of developments in the fields of nanotechnology and cybernetics to manipulate, enhance and finally perhaps supplant biological human nature.1
Chuck Colson and Nigel Cameron
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do [Tower of Babel]. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
Personhood is the biblical teaching of the sanctity of life. Throughout Church history, the doctrinal teaching on this issue has been based on Genesis 1: 26-27: humankind is created “in the image of God” (Imago Dei) and therefore, has worth at all stages of life. This is the bedrock of Western civilization’s understanding and practice of human dignity. We are also told in the Gospels that John the Baptist was known by God, called by God, named by God, and then filled by God with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. John the Baptist is an example of the biblical worldview of Personhood.
Let’s contrast our biblical perspective with an emerging secular worldview. The following excerpt was taken directly from the FAQs listed on the website of Peter Singer, the DeCamp professor of bioethics at Princeton University:2
Q. You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?
A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person.”3
Singer argues his case in his book Unsanctifying Human Life. While he does believe that the “right to life” should be granted to all “persons” equally, his definition of “person” is extremely narrow, excluding not only preborn and disabled children and the elderly infirm, but also pefectly formed born infants through 18 months of age. Singer goes on to declare that his own mother would probably no longer be alive if he were the sole caregiver in his family.4
One would expect to hear that Singer’s position haunts the loopy fringe of public policy discussions. Surprisingly, his prestigious position at Princeton and his vast international influence have earned him acclaim as one of the leading bioethicists of our day. Don’t be surprised if twenty years from now we find his positions on “Personhood” to be encased in law, applied by our hospitals’ ethics boards, and resulting in the entombment and execution of embryonic children at our research laboratories and universities. Simply put, Personhood is nothing less than the prolife battleground of the 21st century.
The Right to Life movement is “fifteen years behind the curve in addressing and responding to this threat,”5 cautions prolife bioethicist Wesley Smith. Our narrow anti-abortion focus in the 20th century failed to equip prolife citizens to counter a host of 21st century issues. Even though national prolife groups continue to warn of these emerging threats to human dignity, the local grassroots supporter is not engaged. We need to adjust our strategy and message to one of Personhood so that we can successfully transition our base from being primarily anti-abortion to recognizing and protecting the sanctity of life wherever it is being assaulted.
It’s No Longer Just about Abortion
An example of the failure of the Right to Life movement is its lack of response to a new and emerging challenge against the sanctity of all life, as seen in the state of Missouri in 2006. On November 6 of that year Missourians approved a “ban on cloning.” Unfortunately, it was a fake ban that actually allowed cloning for “therapeutic” purposes. Put off by the use of the word “therapeutic,” the grassroots prolife voter failed to discern that a human life hung in the balance. The ban changed the Missouri constitution to allow for a human child, brought into existence in a laboratory through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), to be “grown” for 14 days, subjected to human experimentation, and then destroyed. The prolife base failed to understand the issue, recognize the danger, or reject this assault on human life and dignity. More dramatically, this case verified that the word “therapeutic,” when placed in front of any unethical or life-assaulting biomedical practice, assures that the vast majority of voters will condone the practice in question—in this case the destruction of children at an embryonic level. After all, so the thinking goes, the procedure must be moral if it seeks to discover cures for “grandma’s” Alzheimer’s or Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease or if it embodies the promise that someone like Christopher Reeve will walk again.
Destruction of human children at the embryonic level has now expanded beyond research laboratories to be enshrined as a “procreative right” of infertile couples seeking to become parents. It is not uncommon to create between 15 and 20 embryonic children at one time and then, through the process of selective reduction or the eugenic practice of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), to kill all but one or two of those children. As tragic as it may be for a couple to struggle with infertility, when did it become acceptable for a couple’s “right to parent” to supersede another’s “right to life”? Infertility is not a justification for murder. Neither is infertility untreatable. A prolife couple must be fully informed of all options before embarking on a path that assures the IVF clinics and biotech industry more human subjects to sacrifice on the altar of technology.
Drug companies and biotech businesses need human subjects in order to perfect their products; steady supplies of human embryos are needed in order to conduct these lethal experiments. Because fertility clinics cannot possibly supply the large number of embryos needed, the biotech industry has resorted to a transgenic solution: combining 98% human DNA with 2% cow DNA to form a human-animal hybrid known as a “chimera.” As mentioned earlier, Cornell University in May of 2008 created a “glow in the dark” human child by crossing human genes with a fluorescent gene from an Australian jellyfish. The embryo was destroyed before its third week of life, and a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health explained that “the Cornell work would not be classified as gene therapy in need of federal review, because a test-tube embryo [child] is not considered a person under the regulations.”6
Our efforts to promote a culture of life in the 21st century require that we develop a clear and consistent message to alert our culture to the dangers that lie ahead if the definition of “person” is allowed to be eroded from its historical meaning. Personhood is the clear battleground of the prolife movement in our century.7
Personhood: Today’s Debate . . . Tomorrow’s Future
Our nation is unique in that it was founded upon the Judeo-Christian belief that every human being “was endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” and that “among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The right to life is a person’s most basic right. Without its protection all other rights become moot.
Seldom will you find disagreement with this premise; the arguments arise when we as a nation attempt to answer the questions of “when” our rights attach and “who” qualifies as a person under the law. Dred Scott v. Sandford answered these questions in one way—and Nazi Germany in another. In the United States our U.S. Supreme Court wrongly limits the right to life to “born persons.”
Over the past 37 years the debate over this complex question has usually centered around traditional prolife issues, more particularly abortion. But with the emergence of new biotechnologies, the debate must widen from the ethics of life and death to the ethics of human nature and what it means to be created in “the image of God.” This is another question altogether: the why of human dignity and the right to life. It is this question that serves as the foundation for a prolife ethic. The prolife movement must mature beyond the singular goal of “saving babies” and engage our current “culture of death” with a return to the foundational premise that each and every innocent human being must be respected and protected—from its earliest biological beginning until its natural death. Personhood is the means.
The Making, Taking, and Faking of Human Life
The century of the 1800’s has come to be known as the Industrial Age, while the 20th century has been dubbed the Nuclear Age. The 21st century, in contrast, seems destined to be remembered as the Biotech Age. Modern secularist prophet Ray Kurtzwiel has proven empirically that there is an exponential curve in our current growth of biomedical knowledge. His sage prediction is that the amount of biomedical knowledge acquired since the dawn of history will double within the next decade, and he goes on to make the unbelievable assertion that it will double again in the following decade.8
Professor Michael Sleasman, managing director and research scholar for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, explains that, “while many of the ethical questions of the late 20th Century dealt with bio-ethical concerns over the beginning and end of life issues (the making, and taking of human life), the questions raised by these new, these emerging technologies threaten to change the nature of the human species and the very essence of what it means to be human.”9
“Germ-line intervention” is a term that describes the ability of our current state of bio-science to alter the human genome in ways that will be transmissible through normal sexual reproduction. This new technology has to do with the use of genetically altered eggs or sperm to correct or improve the genetic makeup of a resulting child. On its surface this technology promises a generational cure for diseases like Tay-Sachs, which afflicts Eastern European Jews, and Sickle Cell Anemia, afflicting primarily the Black race. This is a needed objective. The problem is that once a genetic change is made to the human genome and is allowed to propagate within the human gene pool, it cannot be undone. Put in another way, once the genie is out of the bottle there is no way of putting it back in. This raises the sinister specter of irreversible harm. From selling the “therapeutic” objective of germ-line intervention to our culture it would be only a short logical hop before we would be presented with the darker side of human enhancement known as eugenics.
A culture that rejects the absolute truth that God created humanity in his own image will naturally evolve to demand that humans create humans in the image of man. Transhuman enhancement, designer babies, cyborgs (human-machine cybrids), and chimeras (human-animal hybrids) suddenly come into focus as desirable objectives. The advancement of the human species by human means is in fact the goal of a new philosophy that is being presented in our nation’s colleges and universities. No longer, so the trans-human philosophers enthuse, will we be called Homo sapiens—humankind will now be designated Homo perfectus! In contrast, Personhood as a public policy not only protects preborn children, but as the basic embodiment of Imago Dei, assures the protection of what it means to be human by establishing a benchmark for human dignity.
Western civilization is at a critical juncture. According to U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, a member of the United States House Science Committee, the unprecedented capabilities of emerging biotechnologies have set the stage for a technological revolution which he has referenced as analogous only to the development of nuclear technology. That our culture has indeed reached an ethical crossroads is evidenced by the following statements made by American congressmen at a “nano-policy roundtable” held in 2006: “Now, like my colleagues, I do not have any answers. Rather, I hope to identify some of the questions. I know that the right time to start thinking about these questions is now. . . . What is the definition of a human?” (U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman).10 And “We are talking about a suite of technologies that are going to revolutionize the way we do things and how we live. And the questions are ‘How will that happen?’ and ‘What will we do as this unfolds?’ (Marty Spritzer, speaking on behalf of Representative Sherwood Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee).11
What are the policy implications of the emerging medical technologies? The courts are demanding both definitions and laws. Christian bioethicist, Nigel Cameron, the president and cofounder of the Institute on Biotechnology & the Human Future, has stated, “The problem is brought into ready focus by the manner in which bioethics has essentially emerged as the conjoined twin of bio-policy.” He goes on to predict that two terms will dominate public policy in the 21st century—transhumanism and eugenics.
Who lives and who dies? Who benefits from our finite medical resources? Whose lives may be sacrificed in order that others may live? If only “persons” benefit, who qualifies as a “person”? The questions have been posed, but their answers require a deeper look into the nature of ethics, policy, ideas, and actions.
In the 20th century it was sufficient for Right to Life advocates to focus on being anti-abortion. But this single focus will not be sufficient in light of the new “killing fields” of the 21st century. Our role in advocating Personhood is to facilitate, educate, and disseminate a biblical worldview within the Church, leading to a response within the larger grassroots prolife movement, one that will place our policy and strategy soundly on the biblical foundation of the whole range of issues embodied in the phrase “sanctity of life,” one that will stand the tests of time and fickle public opinion and defend human dignity beyond our present age. It is no longer just about abortion.
Because we bear the image of God, all humankind—by extension every human life—possesses a “special-ness,” a unique value and worth that demands respect and legal protection. Each human life, from its earliest stage of development, is a unique Person who bears God’s likeness and deserves the same protection under law that is afforded all other “persons” in our society. For this reason all human life must be respected and protected in law.
This respect is due regardless of the manner of conception, whether through the marital act or through a heinous act of rape or incest; whether the egg is fertilized “in vitro” (IVF) or through the “ex utero” process of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), otherwise know as cloning. Regardless of the manner, age, or degree of disability or dependency, a human life has immeasurable worth in the eyes of God—an inestimable, intrinsic value that must be acknowledged by the culture and protected in its code of law.
1 Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: a Christian vision for public policy, edited by Charles W. Colson and Nigel M. de S. Cameron. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p. 26.
2 Ronald Bailey, “The Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Singer interviewed by Ronald Bailey,” http://reason.com/archives/2000/12/01/the-pursuit-of-happiness-peter , 2000, 1 (accessed 11 November 2010).
5 In a conversation with the author in May 2008 at Georgia Personhood Symposium.
6 Andrew Pollack, “Engineering by Scientists on Embryo Stirs Criticism,” New York Times (13 May 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/13/science/13embryo.html (accessed 13 November 2010).
7 My prolife organization, Georgia Right to Life, has produced a website at Personhood.net in our attempt to engage the 21st century with a clear “Sanctity of Human Life” foundation. I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with its resources and message.
8 Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near (Penguin Books, 2005), p. 11.
9 Michael J. Sleasman, ”The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity,” n.d., http://cbhd.org/content/thinking-through-technology-part-i (accessed 11 March 2010).
10 Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano Century,edited by Nigel M. de S. Cameron and M. Ellen Mitchell (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), p. 9.
11 Ibid., p. 4.