Those who have followed the Korean soap opera need to remember what this is really all about. As the tale has unfolded of Dr. Hwang and the lies, frauds, and evasions that have plunged the scientific community into a tailspin, the baseline question is the question of Christmas. What are the bioethics of Bethlehem? In fact, the question breaks into two. Did God truly take human nature to himself in Jesus Christ? And, did he really take it at its beginning? Because for all the focus of our Christmas story on the stable and the baby in a manger, the truly startling event had taken place nine months before.
Behind Christmas lies what Christians in churches that still dare use long words know as the annunciationthe announcement of Gabriel to Mary that she would be with child of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:26-31).
While Christmas reveals the Incarnation to the rest of us, it had already happened back then. Mary was the first to know; and her cousin Elizabeth's unborn baby John (the Baptist) was the first to bear witness. His leaping in the womb was the first act of Christian testimony, a fetal response to a gospel first preached by an embryonic Jesus (perhaps two or three weeks old). As we read this narrative of theology from the womb, our minds turn to a near contemporary who would in due time electrify the ancient pagan world and lay the foundations of its collapse: Saul of Tarsus, also set apart from his mother's womb (Galatians 1:15). Three unborn children in whose hands lay the destiny of humankind. And one of them was not merely the tiniest of humans, he was the cosmic creator, the Word by whom the Godhead has spoken into existence the vastness of time and space. And the One who will one day be our Judge.
I often wonder how many people who hear the famous Bible text that begins "In the sixth month" are aware of what is going on (Luke 1:26). It does not refer to the month of June, or for that matter to Elul, the Hebrew sixth month of the year. The reference is gynecological: the dating is by Elizabeth's pregnancy. And it focuses us on the design of God to use the weak things of the world to confound the strong. The divine conspiracy is hatched within the walls of the womb.
Back to our key questions. God took human form; and he took it not simply as a baby, but as the tiniest of all human beings, a mere biological speck, so small and so undeveloped that it could be mistaken for a laboratory artifact, a research specimen, an object for human experimentation. But this speck was God; this complete genetic human organism, in its primitive and undeveloped form, was so much "one of us" as to bear the existence of the Creator. He dignified humanity by taking the form of this creature he had made in his image; and he did it at the most inauspicious and feeble point in the human life story. At the heart of the Christmas celebration lies the fact of all facts, that God became a zygote.
As the 21st century progresses, it becomes more obvious with every controversy that the fate of the future hangs on these two questions. First, is there dignity in human nature, or is human nature something we can shape at will? This was profoundly addressed by C. S. Lewis, in his remarkable essay "The Abolition of Man." Second, is the earliest human life really "human"? It is important to realize that there are several powerful arguments against using human embryos for research, some of which do not depend on the idea that the embryo is "one of us." And we can argue that the embryo is "one of us"that human dignity is as indivisible as biological human naturewithout ever arguing from theology and Christian belief. But if we are Christians, we have theological underpinnings for such arguments. We believe that all human beings are made in the image of God. We believe that Jesus Christ was God taking human form for himself. And we believe that we started right at the beginningthat incarnation took place in embryo.
Thus are the great questions of the "biotech century" addressed by the foundations of the Christian worldview.
The latest on Hwang
The Boston Globe reports that key photos used in Hwang Woo Suk's published work may be fakes. The New York Times has reported the story extensively and generally well. It worries over the "vexing questions" raised and reports that the key Hwang article is to be withdrawn from the major journal where it appeared. The implications for science at large are spelled out in another Times report. They will long stand as a monument to the hyped, hysterical pursuit of this unethical technology.
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Previous Life Matters columns include:
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Offand Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
Bioethics in Narnia? | C. S. Lewis was way ahead of the curve. (Nov. 30, 2005)
Inventing Ethics | A collaborator walks out on the South Korean cloning genius, citing ethical lapses. (Nov. 18, 2005)
The Killing Fields of Holland: Next It's the Kids | From the Netherlands to California, from stem cells to nanotechnology, how we treat life matters. (Nov. 9, 2005)
Nations United on Bioethics | But is anybody in the West reading the new declaration? (Oct. 19, 2005)
Dr. Frist's Dilemma | The Majority Leader's contradictions mirror the opinions of the public at large. (Oct. 11, 2005)
Cloning Still Haunts California | Remember Prop. 71? Stem-cell research supporters hope voters don't remember the promises they made. (Oct. 5, 2005)
Leon Kass, a Bioethics Legend, Steps Down | The man who led the President's Council on Bioethics brought protests from the industry and directed groundbreaking studies. (Sept. 21, 2005)
A Manufactured Womb of One's Own | The commodification of children and an admission of stem-cell hype. (Sept. 8, 2005)
The Stem-Cell Conspiracy | The Washington Post muddles a major breakthrough in adult stem-cell research, while the U.K. marches blindly on. (Aug. 29, 2005)
Britain Leads the (Wrong) Way | Embryos to be screened for cancer risk, "danger genes." (Aug. 17, 2005)
More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.