Embryos and Abortions: The Battle Continues
The young medical students clad in blue scrubs who sat down to eat pizza in the large East Lecture Hall at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC) were met with a serious topic. The topic at hand sparked much discussion among them as they anticipated the lunch time lecture.
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, was in town for the 23rd annual A. Kurt Weiss Lecture in Biomedical Ethics and ready to speak on one of his favorite topics: the human embryo. The lecture is the brainchild of Kenneth Dormer, professor of physiology at the OUHSC for almost two decades. Working in concert with the Christian Medical and Dental Association and the Baptist Campus Ministries of OU’s medical school, Dormer has brought both nationally and internationally known leaders to the campus to present talks on topics that seem to always attract interest, even controversy. This year would be no exception.
Trained as a lawyer, political philosopher, and theologian, Robert P. George possesses an impressive resume’ from Ivy League institutions, as well as the ability to explain persuasively the nuances of language present in modern law which, much to his amazement, makes abortion legal in the United States. In his latest book, Embryo, George recounts the story of Noah Benton Markham—a young boy rescued from Hurricane Katrina by a team of policemen in boats. At the time, however, Noah was an embryo frozen in liquid nitrogen on a hospital shelf. When the embryo was later implanted in the womb of his mother, Noah was born nine months later. Markham’s birthday is this month, and he will turn 3 years old.
This story of a rescued human embryo remains a compelling aspect for George’s main thesis: human embryos are human beings and as such, deserve the full protection of the law from predatory practices of science, such as stem cell research, which harvests the embryos as matter for research. While the ongoing discussion continues to spark ethical controversy, George does not stand against all research on human stem cells, but he does believe that the harvesting of embryos for the purpose of scientific experimentation is immoral. He argues that the same human being exists as an embryo that exists as an infant, teenager and fully-grown adult. The only moral debate, he says, is whether human beings deserve legal protection at each stage of life—even as an embryo.
Simply defining the terms can be difficult as modern legal scholars and those who draft legislation (particularly at the federal level) seem to make the language dense. As a result, it is easy to forget that behind the verbiage rests a very serious issue. Should an embryo be allowed to live in its mother’s womb or should there be provisions in the law that allow for the killing of this life which has not yet been born? The issues have become so precarious for the professionals whose occupation is to keep a cloud of confusion over the issues that George begins his lecture by defining exactly what an embryo is and whether or not it should be recognized as a human being.
For the young medical students sitting before him, the issue is critical. Those who are pro-life—especially those who desire to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology —face an uncertain future as discussions are currently taking place among professional medical associations which seek to prohibit doctors who refuse to perform abortions from serving as an OB/GYN. George, therefore, works to present an argument that he knows will not only reach the ears of those in his present company, but also far beyond the Basic Sciences Education Building on OU’s campus. As the 37th anniversary of the historic Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade approaches (Jan. 22), constant vigilance is given by George to ensure that the medical students and other professionals who listen are fully aware of what is at stake in the ongoing discussion after Roe.
“Embryos are human beings,” stated George. “They possess the same capacity of all human beings, only with the differences of capacity shown along a continuum which gradually develops.”
He does not allow any deviation for what they are and logically insists “that if any embryos possess basic rights, then all embryos should receive dignity.” The future for the life lies ahead of it. George recognizes the embryo not as a “potential life, but a life of potential.” The nuance is subtle, but important.
George’s talk resides in the realms of both science and philosophy because public disagreement over what life truly “is” and when it begins teeters between these two disciplines. This is why the on-going debate over life issues “must be discussed in terms of the best scientific evidence available as well as careful philosophical reasoning.”
What he carefully avoids is simplistic statements which seek to minimize the arguments of others who disagree with him—even his Princeton colleagues such as Peter Singer, who has publicly advocated that children may be bred for the purpose of providing spare body parts. George believes the moral absurdity of a position is such that most Americans still remain horrified by the very prospect of an abortion. He believes that pictures of an abortion procedure (while gruesome) have not turned the tide of public opinion against abortion as much as sonogram technology, which allows parents to see inside the womb and realize that the fetus is a living person.
“Every young couple now sees pictures of their child while (it is) still in the mother’s womb,” George said in an interview following the lecture. “Some even name the baby before he or she is born, and this technology has created a cognitive dissonance, because the baby they see is something that is truly alive. That small embryo has grown to become a living human being.”
Yet, legislative action continues to seek ways to expand abortion.
“The current healthcare bill will be an expansion of abortion, and those Democrats who say otherwise are stating something that is simply not true,” George said. “Anything short of the language of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) is guaranteed to expand abortion.”
He is disappointed that senators such as Nelson and Casey who have, in the past, supported pro-life positions, are now supporting the current health care bill.
The Manhattan Declaration
On Nov. 20, 2009, a group of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox Church gathered in New York City to announce its support of a 4,700-word declaration which articulated issues about the sanctity of human life, marriage, and religious liberty. The document has now been signed by more than 300,000 people (including prominent Southern Baptists such as R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Timothy George, Chuck Colson, and Anthony Jordan) and continues to ignite both interest and controversy. George was a leading figure in both drafting the document and in helping spread the word about the declaration across the world.
Some saw this effort as yet another attempt by Roman Catholics and evangelicals to politically unite against a Democratic president. Others believed the document to be significant in its scope of issues and the sheer number of people from different perspectives in the Christian church brought together in agreement around key theological positions. What was disappointing to George, however, were evangelical leaders such as R.C. Sproul, Allistair Begg, Michael Horton and John MacArthur, who refused to sign the document because they believed that it compromised the key tenants of the Christian faith and further confused issues such as justification by faith and the doctrine of the true church.
“They seem to misunderstand what the document was intended to do,” George said. “The document does not seek to address the issues of the papacy, justification by faith and the real challenges which remain.”
He insists that the signers of the document unite around the key cultural challenges of the day that could, if left un-checked, destroy Western civilization as it is currently known. Theological differences are still present, but George insists that unity by Christians around issues of life, marriage and religious liberty is an obligation by which the church counters the forces which actively seek the demise of any expression of faith in the public square.
These ideas are reminiscent of the late Richard John Neuhaus, whose 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, became a rallying point for evangelicals and Roman Catholics alike as he insisted that a forced absence of faith by governmental power in matters of public morality was not only wrong, but also amounts to a sort of state-sponsored secularism. George, like Neuhaus before him, believes religious freedom is a first principle that must endure through every generation. Absent an organized and articulate response to the enemies of life, he believes that the moral foundation of the nation will crumble.
“Prayer, however, is something we are all called to do in the ongoing fight against abortion,” he said. “We are not seeking to destroy those who disagree with us, but we are standing against what they stand for, and are working to defeat their ideas.”
For George, that work remains central to what he refers to as “the calling” of his life. At bottom, he insists that the morality of the nation requires action and vocal support on the part of the church. George seems committed to making sure that the church’s voice remains heard in the halls of government and the university.
“We must present a reasonable and compelling vision based on science, philosophy and faith that opponents of life simply cannot deny,” he concluded.