Should Christians accept COVID-19 vaccines?

Should Christians accept COVID-19 vaccines?

COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic that’s killed about 3.5 million people so far, and left many millions more with lingering symptoms. Lockdowns have confined millions of people to their homes, and many have lost businesses and jobs. It’s a serious global threat, and it’s not going away soon. 

Ultimately, to deal with COVID-19, we need a high degree of population immunity to reduce its spread (we aren’t sure what percentage is required). That can be achieved by letting the disease itself to spread, or by vaccination. If we allow the disease to spread unchecked, it would be a global disaster. Millions more people will die and healthcare systems will collapse. But up to one third of people who develop COVID-19 may also end up with long COVID – long-lasting symptoms. In addition, the many millions of people who need treatment for other illnesses won’t get it. A global vaccination program is the only other option that offers a chance to return to something approaching normality.

Fortunately, vaccines are available. It’s astonishing how quickly they have been produced – it’s an amazing scientific achievement. However, this has been done with the help of fetal cell lines.

A cell line is a cell culture that has certain special characteristics unlike our cells. Some are immortal, or nearly so – they can replicate indefinitely, providing an unlimited supply of cells. Our cells can only do this 40 – 60 times, a limit known as the Hayflick limit. Immortal cells get this way either naturally, or it is induced by tweaking the genome. The supply is also a pure population of cells, which is important for consistency in repeated experiments. They can be exhaustively tested for safety and efficacy. Cell lines have revolutionized scientific research – they are used in vaccine development, drug testing, therapeutic protein production. The most famous immortal cell line is probably HeLa cells, obtained from Henrietta Lacks’s cancer without her consent in 1951. There’s over 100,000 studies published involving the use of HeLa cells, including the isolation of the HIV virus.

The polio vaccine was originally developed in cells taken from monkey kidneys. These cells have to be continually replenished, not being immortal, and some were infected with a virus, SV40. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, up to 30 million people in the US were infected by SV40 from the polio vaccine. We don’t really know what the effects of this virus are, but it was clearly a huge problem. Then Hayflick, in 1962, using tissue from the lungs of an aborted fetus from a Swedish woman, discovered the WI-38 (Wistar Institute) cell line, which is one of the most widely used cell lines out there. It isn’t immortal – it has a lifetime of 50 divisions. But it was instrumental in developing a safer polio vaccine, and today is still used to make vaccines for polio, measles, rubella, chicken pox, rabies, and hepatitis A. It’s estimated that over 10 million deaths have been avoided by WI-38 vaccines. In fact, the rubella vaccine has prevented millions of miscarriages. In all, Hayflick claims 2 billion people have benefited in some way from WI-38. Another similar cell line is MRC-5. 

That brings us to COVID vaccines, which use a cell line called HEK-293. This cell line is derived from the kidney of a fetus aborted in around 1972 in the Netherlands  The most common vaccines in Western countries are Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. The AstraZeneca vaccine uses the HEK-293 cell line to make the weakened virus used in the vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines – they are a new type of vaccine that instruct our cells to make the COVID spike protein that triggers an immune response. All of these vaccines used HEK-293 in the testing phase, not the development phase. 

So, all of the vaccines available in the UK and Australia used replicated fetal cells in their testing and development. These aren’t actual cells from these fetuses, but they are exact replicas. What should we who are anti-abortion do about it? The course of action is not obvious. Abortion is an incredibly serious moral issue, and because there is a clear link with vaccines, we need to examine that link closely.

What criteria should be used for making a decision about using vaccines that directly or indirectly use fetal cell lines? We have obligations with regard to abortion, and obligations with regard to loving our neighbour by preventing the spread of infection, and helping to bring this pandemic to an end. How do we balance them?

One approach is to assess how complicit we are in the original evil act that we will benefit from – the abortion of a fetus and the removal of tissue without consent of the fetus (and possibly the parents in some cases). The Catholic church has developed an important distinction that helps us here. Formal cooperation with evil is encouragement or aiding of the evil act, which isn’t the case here. Material cooperation is where it gets complicated – pursuing the good without approving of the original evil act. Here are two good questions to ask about material cooperation.

  1. How causally close to the original evil act is our cooperation? A doctor who refers a patient to someone who she knows is incompetent is still complicit in the harm done to the patient, even though they did not formally cooperate. Transplant tourism in China, where organs have been known to be taken from political prisoners, encourages the evil act by creating more demand. 
  2. Why are we materially cooperating with the evil act? Is the reason sufficiently important and are there viable alternatives?

The cell lines used by vaccines were created using aborted fetuses that were not aborted for this purpose. The actual cells used are duplicates many times removed from the original cells. We are not involved in the production of vaccines that utilise these cell lines. It is difficult to see how taking these vaccines will encourage more abortions. So we are causally very remote from the original evil act when we benefit. In terms of necessity, the situation with the pandemic is grave, and we are lacking viable alternatives. In my view, and that of the Catholic church, we can take the vaccine. It is likely to save many lives if we all do so. 

However, I do not think we can take these vaccines without incurring some obligations. We can’t let our acceptance of the vaccine convey the message that we approve of aborted fetuses being used in this way. We need to voice our opposition to the use of these cell lines – we need to write to our governments to ask that it uses its power to influence vaccine manufacturers to not use these cell lines. Further, we should avoid the more morally compromised vaccine if possible – the AstraZeneca vaccine – as it used a fetal cell line to both develop and test the vaccine. 

I do think it is legitimate to refuse the vaccine because of its link with an evil act, but if you do so, I think you also have certain obligations. Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that you are far more likely to catch and transmit the virus to others if you are not vaccinated. There are vulnerable people in our communities. Transplant recipients rely on immune suppressants which means the vaccine doesn’t really work for them. If the virus is widespread, you may need to modify your behaviour to minimise the chances of passing COVID on. Perhaps you should wear a mask when in contact with others, and get regular COVID tests to ensure you aren’t carrying the virus. Perhaps you should wear a mask to church if you are a churchgoer, to protect the most vulnerable in your congregation. You don’t want people to die or become severely ill as a result of your choice not to vaccinate. If you get ill yourself, you will also add to the burden on the healthcare system. 

Consistency is important too. Many vaccines utilise WI-38, so you need to do your due diligence and avoid these as well as COVID vaccines. That involves especially difficult choices if you want to have children – the most common rubella vaccines use WI-38. If you catch rubella when pregnant, you may have a miscarriage or your child may have serious birth defects. Also, WI-38 is used very widely in scientific research, as is HEK-293, so you should also investigate what drugs or treatments have been developed using this and other fetal cell lines. For example, Ibuprofen, Sudafed, and aspirin have all been tested using HEK-293, as have most modern medications. It’s extremely difficult to avoid.

Whether or not we take the vaccine, we should all be vigorously opposed to abortion and do what we can to raise awareness of this human rights violation on a massive scale. It’s an evil that aborted fetuses have been used to create cell lines used in these vaccines. It’s a far, far worse evil that abortion was legal so these fetuses could be aborted in the first place- and still is.

Should we introduce Voluntary Assisted Dying?

Should we introduce Voluntary Assisted Dying?

In Queensland, Australia, the government has introduced into Parliament a bill that will give terminally ill people the right to request medical assistance to end their life. This is variously known as Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD), Physican Assisted Suicide (PAS), and voluntary euthanasia. The bill will be considered by Parliament’s Health and Environment Committee, and the public can make submissions until 9 am on Friday 2 July 2021. It is expected to be voted on in September 2021.

I do not support VAD. Although I am a Christian, my opposition to VAD is not primarily based on religious grounds. There are good reasons for us all to oppose legalising VAD.

One of the most fundamental ethical principles humans have is that we should not kill the innocent. This is why laws such as those proposed in Queensland are rare – only five US states, Australia, Colombia, Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands currently permit assisted dying. Once this violation is legalised, the inevitable result will be that the law is, at times, abused. Some people who do not wish their lives to be ended this way will not have their wishes respected.

An important principle in healthcare is the notion of consent. We require that patients provide informed consent to treatment. This means they understand the procedure, its consequences, and are not subject to duress or coercion. It can be very difficult to ensure that people are genuinely consenting to VAD. All kinds of pressures are exerted on those who are terminally ill, especially the elderly. People can be persuaded to consent because they don’t wish to burden their family or the healthcare system. Family members with ulterior motives can try to influence their decision. If VAD is legalised, people will be killed who do not wish to die at that time.

Legislation such as VAD that violates a longstanding taboo also generates concerns about a slippery slope. Once we legalise killing of terminally ill patients, the scope of the practice is likely to widen over time. This can happen in several ways. Usually, this kind of legislation has strict criteria for qualifying – usually a terminal diagnosis of no more than six months to live (in the Queensland case, it is 12 months, which is unusually long). However, in Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, killing people with psychiatric conditions is now permitted. In 2014, Belgium changed the law to allow children of any age to request euthanasia, provided they are capable of understanding it. Although instances are very rare, the youngest child so far was 9 years old. Promises by politicians that the proposed legislation will have strict criteria are therefore of little value, as legislation or guidelines can always be amended later.

A crucial provision for terminally ill people is suitable palliative care. Palliative care is not intended to hasten death, but rather to optimise someone’s quality of life. Unfortunately, palliative care is widely acknowledged to be underfunded in Queensland. If the government was as concerned about improving palliative care as they are about promoting VAD legislation, terminally ill people would be far better off. However, legalising VAD is unlikely to improve palliative care services. If someone is terminally ill and in unbearable pain and VAD is available, why should valuable healthcare resources be wasted on them? Most professionals involved in provision of palliative care oppose VAD.

Finally, having VAD available means that there needs to be healthcare professionals willing to actively participate in killing their patients. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those who have dedicated their lives to improving people’s health are reluctant to do so. For example, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) states that they believe ‘doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person’s life’. Yes, there are conscientious provision objections included in the proposed bill, meaning healthcare professionals will not be required to be part of VAD. However, these can always be modified once the practice is normalised. There are also concerns about hospitals run by religious organisations may be forced to provide VAD, against their religious beliefs.

Most people are scared of the process of dying, and it is natural to want to exert as much control over it as possible. However, if we had excellent palliative care provided to all, this would go a long way toward alleviating people’s concerns. VAD is superficially attractive as an option to give us greater control over our deaths, but will inevitably result in vulnerable people having their lives ended against their will. This is a high price to pay, and is one of the reasons why most countries have been extremely hesitant to introduce it.

There’s still time to make a submission if you want to comment on the proposed legislation. Feel free to use any of the thoughts provided here to help you do so.

Should we throw away Ravi Zacharias’s books?

Should we throw away Ravi Zacharias’s books?

Ravi Zacharias’s fall has been one of the most prominent evangelical scandals in recent times. After the release of the final report the RZIM board commissioned into his conduct, there can be little doubt that Zacharias, once one of the world’s most popular Christian apologists, was a liar, a hypocrite and a prolific sexual predator. The signs began emerging a few years ago, beginning with accusations of credential inflation, a sexting scandal in 2017 that was stridently denied, and finally, revelations that he had sexually abused numerous massage therapists. Ravi Zacharias was a fraud.

Where does that leave us regarding the many books Zacharias wrote or co-authored? He wrote dozens of highly popular Christian apologetics books, selling millions. This hasn’t stopped those promoting his books from taking swift action. HarperCollins Christian Publishing, the largest publisher of Christian books in the United States, are taking his books out of print. Australian Christian book shop Koorong Books is no longer offering books solely authored by Zacharias for sale. David Deane writes that he will no longer recommend Zacharias’s work to others.

Not everyone is convinced that Zacharias’s books should be discarded, though. John Stackhouse, Jr writes that there is much of value to be found in the writings of many Christians who were notorious sinners. He cites Karl Barth, well known for his long-term adulterous affair, and Martin Luther, amongst others. Clearly, a Christian writer’s fall from grace does not automatically invalidate all they have written. And we all know our own sins, and yet we expect God will continue to use us and our efforts. So if Zacharias’s books are valuable apologetics works in their own right, why not keep using them, just like we do the works of Barth and Luther?

I think one significant problem with using Zacharias’s books for now is the proximity to the timeline of his failings. There has been world-wide media coverage of his fall, disgracing the gospel, and to continue to recommend his books seems like we aren’t too concerned about his moral failures. It could even be seen as subtly defending him. There are dozens of victims of his sexual harassment, and they need to be followed up, apologised to, offered counselling, and compensated. Continuing to promote his books seems to demonstrate a lack of appreciation of the tremendous impact of Zacharias’s sin on others. By contrast, Barth died over 50 years ago, and so few, if any, affected by his sin remain alive today.

There’s also the issue of the relationship between apologetics and character. Zacharias has also shown himself to be a serial liar and a fraud, and that directly undermines trust in what he has written. As Nathan Campbell has said, apologetics is about persuasion, and Zacharias’s moral failures surely render his arguments less persuasive once someone learns of them. Ironically, Zacharias condemns himself when he writes: ‘I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out …the way one’s life is lived out will determine the impact. There are few obstacles to faith as serious as expounding the unlived life …This call to a life reflecting the person of Christ is the ultimate calling upon the apologist. The skeptic is not slow to notice when there is a disparity, and because of that, may question the whole gospel in its supernatural claim’.1

Perhaps the best approach is to let time do its work in salvaging what’s of worth in Zacharias’s writings. If we lay his books aside for at least a few years, we might get a better perspective on what has value. None of what he has written seems to qualify as solid scholarship, as opposed to the writings of Barth and Luther. It’s popular apologetics, and perhaps it won’t be missed. John Stackhouse Jr certainly wasn’t impressed by his work. There are many others writing in this space.

Of course, if you own some of Zacharias’s books, it might be that you find them personally helpful for their content, and so you might have good reason to keep them. I threw away my Lance Armstrong books when he proved to be a drug cheat, but that made his entire life story a fraud. With the exception of his autobiography, Zacharias’s books aren’t about his life story, they are about apologetics, and so there’s bound to be some useful material we can draw upon if we own his books. Really, this post should ask if we should keep recommending his books to others, not if we should throw them away.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that there may be much more to emerge regarding the Zacharias story – for example, we don’t know the full story behind his frequent solo visits to Asia, and I’m not looking forward to finding out. His fall might have further to go.

1In an article called The Apologetic of the Apologist, which appears to have been removed from the RZIM site but which has been cached by Google here.

The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The Inquisition – myth vs fact

The popular notion of the Inquisition is that of a monstrous tyranny spanning the centuries, bent on eliminating heresy wherever it was found, torturing people for confessions and condemning them to being burnt at the stake. It is often claimed that hundreds of thousands or even millions of unfortunates died at the hands of the Catholic church in this fashion, and that Jews and Protestant reformers were particular targets. It’s commonly raised when opponents want to criticize Christianity.

However, historians have known for some time that this view of the Inquisition is vastly exaggerated. Many archives are available, and a number of books have been published by historians in recent years that correct the record.

What was the Inquisition? Inquisitions were church tribunals instituted by the Catholic church (usually in conjunction with the state) to combat heresy, although their remit was eventually broadened to other offences. They were concerned primarily with baptised Catholics. Inquisitions could use torture to obtain confessions, and handed unrepentant heretics over to secular authorities to be sentenced. There were actually a number of inquisitions – the Medieval Inquisition, from 1184 to 1500s; the Spanish Inquisition, from 1478-1800s; the Portuguese Inquisition from 1536-1800s; and the Roman Inquisition, from about 1588 to 1800s.

The Spanish Inquisition is the most notorious of these. It was actually established and controlled by the Spanish monarchy working with the church and concentrated on conversos – Muslims or Jews who had converted to Catholicism and who were suspected of maintaining their old religious practices. In 1492 the Spanish monarchy expelled Jews from Spain, and many converted to Catholicism to avoid expulsion.

So was the Spanish Inquisition really as genocidal as some claim? As far as historians can tell, approximately 5,000 executions were carried out during the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, or perhaps 15 a year. Not insignificant, but certainly nothing like popular claims. To put these figures in context, China executes thousands of its citizens per year. Most people accused of heresy were acquitted or had their sentences suspended. Yes, torture was used in a small percentage of trials, but the use of torture was routine throughout Europe at the time. Inquisition trials were actually fairer and more lenient than secular trials. It should be noted too that capital punishment was very widely used during this period for a broad range of offences.

Up until 1530, Protestant reformers were not targeted by the inquisitions, because Protestants did not exist until this period. There were very few Protestants in Spain, so few Protestants were affected. The Roman Inquisition targeted Protestants in Italy more deliberately, which resulted in most Italian reformers leaving Italy.

So how should Christians treat accusations regarding the horrors the church has inflicted via inquisitions? Facts are important, particularly when they have been so distorted. We should endeavour to have an accurate picture of the historical context and to separate truth from exaggeration. But conversely, we should never attempt to minimise past wrongs committed by the church. It is abhorrent and deeply regrettable that anyone was tortured and executed with church involvement, no matter what the actual numbers are.

Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

Kamen, Henry. The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition. 1994. Timewatch series, BBC.

The power of a simple story

The power of a simple story

I was recently writing an academic paper on medical ethics, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan as related in Luke 10:25-37. As I researched this parable, I was amazed at its influence, and began to wonder, has any story as simple as this had the reach and power of this parable? It would have taken Jesus just a few minutes to relate, but its influence has reached the corners of the globe over the last 2000 years. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways it has become deeply embedded in our culture.

Firstly, the term ‘Good Samaritan’ is well used by law-makers. Good Samaritan laws are laws that give legal protection to those who help a stranger in need of aid in emergency situations. They prevent rescuers from being prosecuted for wrongful injury or death, and are common around the world – all because the parable teaches us to help those in need. 

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is also widely employed in the name of many medical facilities, as a quick Google search will reveal – healthcare centres, hospitals and hospices. In fact, Gerald Arbuckle describes the parable as ‘the ultimate founding myth of healthcare’. 

There are also numerous charities that use the term – in the United Kingdom, the Samaritans is a charity dedicated to helping those struggling with emotional issues and those at risk of suicide. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. 

Finally, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the parable as ‘one of the original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built’. We all know what being a Good Samaritan involves – a sacrificial act to help someone in need.  The lawyer in the parable wanted a precise definition of his neighbor so he knew who he should love, and who he wasn’t required to. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks him, ‘which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’. The answer was obvious – neither the lawyer, nor any of us need to be told. In just a few simple sentences, Jesus sums up our obligations to others in a way no-one has ever been able to improve on. 

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here

 

 

Alister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

Alister McGrath talks with Bret Weinstein

The popular Unbelievable? show, an apologetics and theology discussion program  hosted by Justin Brierly on Premier Christian Radio, launched The Big Conversation video series in 2018. The series showcases civil conversations between world-class Christian and secular thinkers, and has featured Jordan Peterson, Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer amongst others. I attended the live recording of John Lennox and Michael Ruse in 2018. Season 2 has now launched, and I’ve just been to hear Alister McGrath talk with Bret Weinstein (the video will be released later in the year).

Alister McGrath needs no introduction. A professor of theology at the University of Oxford, he has a background in biochemistry and is known for his Christian apologetics and work on the relationship between science and religion. Bret Weinstein is rather less well known in the UK. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and infamous for his controversial departure from Evergreen State College.

We began with some introductions. Alister described how studying the philosophy of science helped to disperse his logical posivitism – the view that only claims verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful – and this helped move him from atheism towards Christianity.  He opined that “New Atheism” pioneered by Richard Dawkins is waning – it helped open up discussion but soon we became aware of the paucity of most New Atheist answers. Bret agreed that New Atheism was overly simplistic, but it was necessary to make atheism more acceptable in society. One flaw was its labeling of people with faith as delusional. Bret believes each perspective has a validity not well recognised by the other. Each has a “bitter pill” to swallow – more on that later, as it became a recurring theme.

Bret is an evolutionary biologist, but believes Evolution 101 is inadequate to explain human complexity. Humans are at the far end of the evolutionary continuum, and we have culture. We can store and transmit information. Bret sees Dawkins’ idea of memes as being crucial. Because children have a long period of development, it allows us to program them with our ideas, and over time evolution selects the most favourable belief systems – those with adaptive value. According to Bret, this is certain. Religion is one of these belief systems, and Bret regards it as metaphorically true – a useful fiction that allows those who hold to these beliefs to out-compete those who do not.

Alister asked what Bret meant by religion, pointing out that we could easily be talking about ethics. He also noted that science has its own belief system. Bret agreed that the bitter pill for materialists is that some faith is required to do science. His job is to minimise faith and metaphorical truths. Alister agreed that science is at times very provisional and tentative. We can’t prove our most cherished beliefs.

The discussion moved to the postmodern conception of truth. Bret thinks believing whatever you like a la carte is nonsense. We need a coherent set of beliefs, like religions, which contain much wisdom. But there is a huge problem. Religious texts are not designed to be consistent – interpreters such as clergy are required to dispense a coherent narrative. In the past, this has worked successfully, but the church no longer has the authority to control religious text. The world is in crisis, and our religious texts can no longer help. Much is no longer relevant, parts are immoral, and they don’t tell us how to deal with new tools we come up with. The Bible doesn’t tell us whether we should enrich uranium!

Alister agreed that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of today. Every reading of the Bible is embedded in a cultural context, and we must recognise this and draw on past cultural readings – but at the same time ensure we are not locked into a reading of Scripture rooted in the past. Christianity does have the capacity to make sense of it all. Science helps us understand how, religion with why. Alister quoted C.S. Lewis’ well known saying: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’.

Bret is of the opinion that religion can’t lead us through the uncharted waters we face today.  There is great urgency to stop the battle and obtain new tools for doing what we need to do. We need new wisdom, and violating the sacred is necessary. Unfortunately, religious texts have a plan interwoven to compete against other populations, and that isn’t sustainable. We have to step away from evolutionary competition, take evolution out of the driver’s seat, and start cooperating. How can we give the maximum number of humans a beautiful planet to live on? Alister admired such noble aspirations, but noted that evolution doesn’t allow for ethical imperatives – the empirical doesn’t lead to the normative.

There were some great questions asked after the discussion.  One of the best was when someone ask what the evolutionary benefit of following Jesus in the first century was – clearly, not much. Bret thought this was merely survivor bias – there are lots of belief systems out there, and some sneak through out of luck. I’m not sure how this answer fits with his idea that religion has adaptive value – perhaps he means over the much longer term? Alister added that religion gives the social benefits of solidarity.

Another question asked how important a belief in God was, rather than just believing in the right moral framework. According to Bret, deity is a hack. God is always watching to prevent wrongdoing that is ultimately against your best interests. An ethical system isn’t watching you. Bret added that there are such things as absolute wrongs, which is interesting.

Someone commented that revering Scripture privileges writers from 2000 years ago, rendering current thinkers less influential, even though current thinkers have a better grasp of today’s problems. Alister didn’t see this as an issue. Christian writers articulate how we should interpret Scripture for today’s issues, just like Calvin saw that the underlying problem behind the ban of usury in the Old Testament was exploitation, and allowed for charging of interest if done fairly. Bret thinks there is an issue. The path forward is not clear, and it’s scary: the rate of change is unprecedented. We must update our sacred texts – our current tools are too powerful and the population too high. He is pessimistic about humanity surviving the next 200 years.

Finally, Bret was asked what could change his mind about believing in God. He said that as a scientist, of course he could change his mind. One possibility would be a message encoded in our genome that is unambiguously from a deity.

Conclusion

It was a fascinating discussion, very ably hosted by Justin as usual, although perhaps it was almost too polite. Alister is a gentleman, and very generous and positive in his responses. I felt he could have pushed Bret further in some of his assertions, but chose not to. I enjoyed Bret’s perspective, and felt he had fascinating ideas to share. It was a little puzzling though, as Bret seemed to have some strong ethical beliefs, and yet did not acknowledge them to be metaphorical truths produced by evolution in the same way that he believes religion is. Perhaps he is well aware of this, and even though they are fictions, regards them as useful ones that will help save the planet. I did leave with the impression that Bret was promoting a quasi-religious view that has elements in common with Christianity – that humanity has a problem, we need saving, and other ways are inadequate to deal with the problem.

The problem of miscarriage for pro-lifers

The problem of miscarriage for pro-lifers

It isn’t widely known, but a high proportion of human pregnancies end in miscarriage, also known as spontaneous abortion. The majority of these miscarriages occur very soon after pregnancy, often before the pregnancy is known, and for this reason, precise figures are difficult to obtain. Estimates for the rate of miscarriage vary widely, but many are in excess of 60%. These estimates are usually based on some very old studies, together with data obtained by observing in vitro fertilisations (IVF), which may not reflect what occurs in nature.

Let’s tentatively accept a 60% rate of miscarriage. What’s the main issue for the pro-life position? Many philosophers have pointed out that this means hundreds of millions of human beings are dying by miscarriage, and according to pro-lifers, these are all human beings with moral value equivalent to any adult. But these numbers are far in excess of any other cause of death. In fact about 56 million human beings die each year, while perhaps 200 million miscarriages occur. The question has been asked, why don’t pro-lifers care about this huge loss of human life? They are certainly concerned with preventing induced abortions, which account for far few human lives, about 56 million. But their lack of concern about the 200 million deaths from miscarriage seems to indicate they don’t really believe their own claims about the moral value of embryos and fetuses. In fact, their stance has been criticised as ‘morally monstrous’.

It’s an important question for pro-lifers to answer, and the PA and Daniel Rodger have just published a comprehensive reply in The New Bioethics entitled The Problem of Spontaneous Abortion: Is the Pro-Life Position Morally Monstrous?. I’ll summarise our response below. If you don’t have access to academic journals and would like a copy of this paper, please request it from here.

The underlying question is what moral obligation do pro-lifers have towards combating miscarriage, and how does this obligation compare to their obligation to oppose induced abortions. Certainly, on a pure numbers basis, there is a prima facie obligation to do something about miscarriageit certainly seems to trump induced abortion in this regard. But we identify two important considerations that should influence our obligations:  the preventability of death and the moral badness of death. If deaths are not preventable, this reduces our obligation towards these deaths, and if certain deaths are morally worse than others, we should prioritise them.

Preventability of miscarriage

It is too simplistic to directly compare deaths by miscarriage to deaths by, say, cancer, or even induced abortion. Miscarriage is not a cause of death, but rather refers to all natural deaths prior to birth, irrespective of cause. It has a variety of underlying causes, and these must be examined to determine which are the most prevalent. The most common cause of miscarriage turns out to be chromosomal abnormalities, accounting for perhaps 70% of all miscarriages. These abnormalities are mostly aneuploidies, an abnormal number of chromosomes in cells, and they are rarely compatible with life. Aneuplodies cannot be preventedthis would require gene-editing of embryos, which is not currently possible.

There are a variety of other lesser causes of miscarriage, such as uterine abnormalities, thrombophilias, immunological and immunogenetic causes, and acute maternal infections. Certain lifestyle factors have been implicated in increasing the risk of miscarriage, including smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and obesity, and finally increasing maternal age is also a factor.

Killing vs Letting Die

Some pro-lifers have claimed induced abortions are far morally worse than miscarriages, and that this justifies concentrating efforts on fighting induced abortion. The problem with this claim is that even if there is a moral distinction between deliberate killing (induced abortion) and letting someone die (miscarriage), it’s not clear that this matters. To explore this, let’s assume there is a moral difference—that it is far worse for someone to deliberately kill someone rather than letting them die, say by failing to rescue them. The issue for pro-lifers is that as far as they are concerned, it seems that induced abortions are also a case of letting die—they are not directly involved in killing themselves, and so they are bystanders with respect to induced abortions and miscarriages. Unless pro-lifers wish to make nebulous claims about induced abortions contributing to more evil in the world, it seems there is no good reason to prioritise opposing induced abortions over miscarriages on the grounds of moral evil.

Here Thomas Pogge sheds some light on the issue, stating that with regard to induced abortions ‘we are responsible for helping to bring these deaths about by participating in maintaining and enforcing a legal system that, by permitting abortions, foreseeably results in these extra deaths’ (Pogge 2010, p. 127). Citizens in the United States prior to 1860 were all responsible for laws permitting slavery, irrespective of whether they owned slaves themselves. Similarly, all citizens in a democracy permitting induced abortion bear some moral responsibility for these deaths. So if induced abortions are morally worse than miscarriages and all citizens bear some responsibility for them, this is a strong reason to oppose it.

In ethics, the killing vs letting die distinction is widely debated. Intuitively, most of us feel there is something worse about deliberate killing compared to allowing someone to die, but it is difficult to pin this down. Philosophers are very good at coming up with counter-examples to accounts of this difference. We take the approach of looking at a comparison that is as analogous as possible (on the pro-life view) to most induced abortions and miscarriages: the deliberate killing of a newborn baby who could be expected to live a normal life, and allowing a newborn with a fatal and incurable chromosomal disorder to die. It seems clear that letting the newborn die in this case may not be morally problematic at all, while killing a newborn baby is always gravely wrong. We conclude that similarly, it is far worse morally to deliberately kill a fetus than to fail to save it.

Conclusion

Even though the number of deaths are much higher for miscarriages than induced abortions, they both represent tens of millions of deaths of morally valuable human beings, according to the pro-life position. If we allow that our moral obligations with regard to these deaths are influenced by what can be done to prevent them, and that induced abortions are morally worse than miscarriages, then it seems reasonable for pro-lifers to concentrate on opposing induced abortions. If we consider prenatal deaths by preventable causes, induced abortion is by far the most preventable cause of death.

It is important, however, for pro-lifers not to ignore miscarriages. Although much medical research is dedicated towards the problem, the scale of deaths means the issue should be discussed widely in pro-life circles and consideration given to what might be done.

 

 

 

 

Artificial wombs and violinists

Artificial wombs and violinists

The most well-known argument for the permissibility of abortion is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist analogy, described in ‘A defense of abortion‘. Here, she imagines someone waking up to find themselves kidnapped and a famous, unconscious violinist plugged into their body. The violinist needs the use of their body for nine months to survive, and unplugging the violinist would kill him. Thomson claims the victim would be under no obligation to keep the violinist plugged in, and likewise a pregnant woman is under no obligation to continue providing life support for her fetus. Yes, it would be nice if she did so – performing what Thomson calls a ‘Good Samaritan’ act – but she is not obliged to.

Thomson’s argument is important because it does not rely on the moral status of the fetus. She claims that even if the fetus is regarded as a person in the moral sense – possessing the same moral status as an adult human being – her argument is still valid. Of course, there are various objections to Thomson’s reasoning, and debate is ongoing. A thorough and recent evaluation can be found in Kate Greasley’s excellent Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. But for those who rely on Thomson’s violinist as support for their pro-choice position, a distant storm is slowly brewing.

That storm is the relentless advance of new technology: the artificial womb is coming, and it may eventually have a significant impact on Thomson’s violinist. It has been mooted for a long time, but in 2017 it was announced that premature lambs were kept alive for four weeks in bags of fluid. They appeared to develop as normal, and those that were brought to term were removed and bottle-fed, and were doing well. As the technology improves, it should eventually be available for premature human babies. It’s a long way off, but it’s even possible that IVF embryos could be brought to term entirely in artificial wombs, a process known as ectogenesis. No female womb required.

So what? Well, a crucial point of Thomson’s argument is that she does not think there is a right to the death of the fetus. Her argument is that there is a right to extract the fetus to end its use of the mother’s body for its life support. For Thomson, the death of the fetus is an unfortunate byproduct of ending the pregnancy. Ectogenesis alters this situation dramatically. If we assume that the technology also includes the ability to safely extract the fetus at any stage of pregnancy (yes, this is a big assumption), then Thomson’s argument (as far as she is concerned) is no longer an argument for abortion, but rather for ectogenesis. The fetus gets to survive.

This possibility is rather awkward for the pro-choice position. There aren’t any other significant arguments that grant the permissibility of abortion in the case that the fetus is regarded as morally equivalent to an adult. Thomson’s argument has allowed pro-choice advocates to sidestep arguments about moral status. Ectogenesis will bring these arguments to the forefront, and they are controversial. Moreover, even if the fetus is not regarded as having the same moral status as an adult, killing a viable human being that is not reliant on its human mother is very different to abortion. Ectogenesis might mean a seismic shift in the abortion debate.

Some philosophers have anticipated this possibility, and tried to counter it by claiming that there is, in fact, a right to the death of the fetus. We (the PA and Daniel Rodger) examine (and reject) three of the most popular arguments in our recent paper published in Bioethics.  This paper also provides a detailed look at Thomson’s violinist and ectogenesis for those who are interested. Contact the PA if you’d like a copy.