Amy Laura Hall is assistant professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School and a dedicated mother of two girls who often accompany Mom on business trips. It is not unusual for Hall to check her blouse for toddler goop as she begins a lecture.
Her audiences are often left both disturbed and grateful for this ordained Methodist's insights into the way our society tends to see children as an inconvenience. Hall is a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology (2004-2005), and she is using this grant to write a book titled Conceiving Parenthood. Associate editor Agnieszka Tennant spoke with Hall recently.
Throughout history, conservative Christians have believed that personhood begins at conception. As technology began to present us with new choices, have you noticed a shift in the way we think about personhood?
This question is tricky, given our history. Even Christians committed to biblical truth and salvation through Christ have been tempted to bend, stretch, and evade God's unequivocal call to "choose life." When land, money, health, or status has been at stake, Christians have reshaped their imaginations to see some humans as subhuman, as not quite children of the heavenly Father. There are obvious, blatant examples—from slavery to selectively aborting fetuses with disabilities. But there are also more subtle examples—from exploiting cheap human labor to using "excess" embryos for medical research.
A consistent life ethic, whereby we think of all human life as gathered safely in the bosom of God, requires a radically nonutilitarian way of life. Evangelical Christians still struggle with this call. Biotechnology offers a new set of temptations. But it also grants a new opportunity to witness to life.
In the lead story, Bob Smietana describes your pro-life friend's reaction to an embryo under the microscope. Why do you think she decided it wasn't a human being?
I think her desire for the gift of a child of her own collided with her conviction that each incipient human life is a gift cherished by God. In that collision, her previous conviction had to fall away.
This has occurred to a segment of evangelical and mainline Christians. As we have become privy to the prayers of infertile couples, as we have watched embryos chosen under the microscope, as we have rightly cherished and baptized children born through in vitro fertilization (IVF), we have been wooed to put aside our sense of the incalculable worth of early embryonic life.
Perhaps our wonder at the way biotechnology can so masterfully create has overtaken our wonder at the relatively unpredictable ways the God of Jesus Christ creates families of blessing. Consider Matthew's genealogy. Now there is a mysterious, even mystifying, process that should evoke awe.
Some Christians say the ethical way to do IVF is to freeze the fertilized egg before the DNA strands of the sperm and egg combine. Do you agree?
How did we come to the point where Christians are trying to sort through the logistics of joining DNA to DNA? What kind of trajectory gave this generation the task of timing the exact, precise moment when IVF is licit or illicit? Why were we so very intent to solve the problem of infertility that we have mastered the exact timing of when sperm and egg become incipient human life?
There are evangelicals who argue that it is natural to want to have our own children so badly that we will expend tremendous time, effort, and expertise to pursue them. It is a God-given drive, some say, and it should come as no surprise that Christians have used all our scientific advances to drive toward parenthood.
I come back again and again to a pithy section on parenthood in Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. He reminds us that "the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and ultimately depended has now become our Brother." The irreproducible gift of Christ must shape the way we think about procreation. The prayer of Hannah cannot be the prayer of the Christian woman because the child on whom our hope depends has already been born and has become our brother. The supposedly natural, desperate desire to bear a particular, promised child may be changed by our faith in the birth of a baby boy in an inauspicious manger in Bethlehem.
Through Christ's death and resurrection, we are adopted, made heirs of the promise. Our generation should refuse to answer the questions of technological timing and start asking about the dearth of Sunday school teachers for the children who are already ours through baptism, about the dearth of adoptive parents for children in this country who are supposedly too risky for us to accept into our homes. At what precise moment does the "emotional DNA" of a foster child become intermingled with our own?
What would you advise a Christian who is debating using a therapy developed from the "existing" stem-cell lines?
In this case, too, the most important set of questions are "upstream" from this question. How did we come to have incipient life stored in thousands of vats? How did we come to have "excess" embryos for research when we have so many "unwanted" children in need of our care, whether they are in our churches, our public schools, or the local homeless shelter?
I suspect that in five years, we will likely not even be informed that the therapy chosen for us was developed from embryonic stem-cell research. We may even enter a period when the courts will deem that parents are unfit unless we consent to have our children treated with therapies developed through embryonic research. I pray that this will not happen.
What's your take on the view that personhood doesn't begin until the embryo implants in the uterus? Would you, along with this position's proponents, advise a rape victim to take the morning-after pill?
Why is an accidental, unexpected pregnancy considered a disaster in dominant evangelical culture? How can we reconfigure our institutions—workplaces, schools, churches—in ways that make them truly hospitable to new human life? Is there on-campus housing for undergraduates with babies at Christian colleges?
I would not advise a rape victim to take the morning-after pill. But neither would I condemn her if she requested it. Given the shame she may expect, how can I be shocked? But our moral discernment regarding the systematic use of embryos for research should not be shaped by the pastoral response to a horrible rupture of God's intent for gracious human intimacy.
Dare I ask you if the belief that life begins at conception—and before implantation—should affect many Christian women on the pill?
You are right to say "dare," because this question pulls in a huge number of women and men who are currently using a technology that, as a backup plan, uses a method akin to the morning-after pill. We would need a much longer conversation to talk about the history behind the pill and the reasons why mainline and evangelical Protestants have so readily accepted it.
It is not merely a woman's uterus that has become hostile to implantation. The dominant culture in the United States is hostile to the interruption of children, particularly the children of unwed mothers and children with overt needs. As women have entered the workplace, the workplace did not change. Rather, evangelical women, like other women, have desperately tried to meet the demands of a grueling workweek. I tell my pro-choice friends that, while the President's hands may be "off our bodies," our employers have their hands all over our bodies. The law allows "reproductive freedom," but the economic culture asks women to time their children with increasing efficiency.
In the end, then, what is a person?
A person is a child of God, a gratuitous sign of God's whimsy of life. It is mind-altering, perhaps even terrifying, to imagine that we cannot define the boundaries of life with precision. But I fear we cannot. I believe that with all our expertise and gadgets, we are still called to witness to the possibility that all life, from conception onward, is held in God's pierced palm.
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More information about Amy Laura Hall is available from her web site.
Hall's article "Making Prenatal Choices" is available online.
Hall is featured in another Faith and Values video on the story of Balaam's donkey and God's purpose.
More Christianity Today articles on cloning from our Life Ethics page includes:
When Does Personhood Begin? | And what difference does it make? (June 18, 2004)
Cloning Report Breeds Confusion | Does it open the door to 'therapeutic cloning'? (May 13, 2004)
A Law That Shouldn't Be Cloned | New Jersey legalizes human cloning for research (Feb. 10, 2004)
Limited Cloning Ban Disappoints Prolife Groups | President's Council on Bioethics recommends a four-year moratorium on research cloning. (Aug. 19, 2002)
Defender of Dignity | Leon Kass, head of the President's Council on Bioethics, hopes to thwart the business-biomedical agenda. (June 07, 2002)
Goodbye, Dolly | We need nothing less than a total ban on human cloning. (May 15, 2002)
New Coalition Rallies Against Human Cloning | After Advanced Cell Technology announcement, sharp criticism comes from all sides. (Dec. 20, 2001)
Opinion Roundup: 'Only Cellular Life'? | Christians, leaders, and bioethics watchdogs react to the announcement that human embryos have been cloned. (Nov. 29, 2001)
Times Fifty | Can a clone be an individual? A short story. (Oct. 02, 2001)
Britain Debates Cloning of Human Embryos | Scientists want steady stream of stem cells for "therapeutic" purposes. (Nov. 22, 2000)
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