with Rev. Alex Lang
January 10, 2021
It is not inconceivable that in the next 20 years, humanity will produce the first human being grown in a lab. How will we as Christians respond to this new technology?
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.
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For our first series of the New Year, we are doing sermon series called Brave New World, named for the famous book by Aldous Huxley. We find ourselves on the cusp of a revolution. It is estimated that the next two decades will bring about some of the most incredible technological innovation that will change the course of human progress indefinitely. These changes will be so dramatic that it will alter the landscape of how the world functions.
Each sermon will start with an innovation that will fundamentally change our world. We will consider this innovation from a lot of different angles, drawing out the ethical implications. Then we will turn this innovation around and see what the Christian faith has to offer. How does Christianity provide a perspective that could benefit our society as we interact with this new technology? As we explore each of these innovations, I think you will see that Christianity has an important role play in this Brave New World.
We began our series last week by talking about the impending genetic revolution and how this new technology will have the ability to significantly reduce physical suffering. Today, we are going to take the next logical leap with this genetic technology. The idea we are exploring today is something that comes directly out of the book Brave New World. It is not inconceivable that in the next 20 years, humanity will produce the first human being grown in a lab.
For those of you who may have trouble imagining what I’m talking about, let’s break it down. Right now, in order for a human baby to be produced, it requires a female egg, a male sperm and woman’s womb to nurture the fetus for 9 months. Over the last 10 years, doctors and scientists have been working on creating an artificial environment similar to a mother’s womb that can nurture a fetus.
For instance, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia revealed they had developed an artificial womb capable of sustaining a premature lamb during a period of development roughly equivalent to 24 weeks of gestation in humans. The reason they’re doing this is because 30,000 babies are born premature every year. The effects of premature birth can result in life-long disabilities. But if they could transfer the fetus to an artificial womb and allow the fetus to come to term, then those potential problems could be avoided.
Now imagine that same artificial womb is not just used in emergencies, but is intentionally utilized to grow and birth children. This could dramatically change the way our world operates. Again, this is the premise in the movie Gattaca. When someone wants to have a baby, they take a trip to a lab. Let’s watch this scene and you’ll get a sense of how this might look.
So the premise in the film is that the lab takes the egg and sperm, removes all of the genetic issues and then grows the baby in an artificial womb in a lab. Women no longer have to go through pregnancy and child birth. The entire process is outsourced and, once the baby is born, then the child is given back to an individual or couple to raise.
The book Brave New World takes this idea one step further. In the book, children are not only grown in a lab, but couples and individuals don’t even contribute egg and sperm to the reproduction process. All of the genetic material for reproduction is created in a lab. Indeed, couples or individuals are no longer expected to raise children. There’s no such thing as parents. In fact, the words father and mother are considered derogatory obscenities that are no longer part of common social vocabulary.
Now I’m not trying to suggest that this is the scenario that is going to play out over the next 10-20 years. I’m not even suggesting that this scenario will play out over the next 50-100 years. But what I am suggesting is that the human reproductive process is going to experience a major shift. Let me give you a realistic scenario of how this might happen.
Right now, if you live in a highly educated industrialized nation, the birth rates among those nations are plummeting. For instance, in Japan, the number of births each year since 1970 have steadily declined to the point where the Japanese are not producing enough children to replace their population. In 2019, there were 900,000 births and 1.4 million deaths. As a result, the Japanese population declined by 500,000 people. What this means is that Japan is running out of people to maintain their labor force.
Their current approach to dealing with this problem is by allowing foreigners to come into Japan to work, but they are very stringent about their requirements. Any foreign worker must take a test and demonstrate a good grasp of the Japanese language and culture. Eventually, the population decline will be too steep for them to compensate through immigration if they want to maintain their culture and traditions.
This is why scientists in Japan are looking more seriously at this new reproductive technology as a means to save their culture. Since the Japanese people are becoming less and less interested in raising children, they could compensate by creating Japanese babies in a lab. These children would be raised in group homes and, therefore, could maintain Japanese customs and culture. I’m not saying it’s a good idea, I’m just saying it’s a possibility for the future as many industrialized nations experience population decline.
Of course, if this is where the future is headed, then it creates some really interesting questions about how Christians respond to the ethics of this new technology. So one of the most basic principles of the Christian faith is found in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which states that humans are created in the image and likeness of God. Unlike all other aspects of God’s creation, humans are gifted with this specific attribute.
There are a lot of different interpretations associated with these verses, but what most Christians agree on is that they convey the idea that humans are special. We carry an element of God’s spirit within us. And if you read Genesis chapter 2 where God forms Adam from the earth and breathes life into him, then there is this beautiful notion that God’s spirit or breath gave us life.
Now, if you read this story literally, where Adam and Eve are the first two humans ever created and all the humans of the earth come from them, then every subsequent human is imbued with God’s breath or spirit. In fact, the earliest Christians, because they had no concept of how genetics worked, believed that the soul was passed from the parent to the child through the act of sexual intercourse.
They believed that a man’s sperm transferred Adam’s original soul into the woman to create the new child. So every child born since Adam’s creation has inherited Adam’s soul. This belief is the reason why Christians have traditionally been against any type of abortion. If every human possesses God’s spirit or breath, then that means every human is of infinite value. Hence, intentionally preventing that life from coming to fruition is unethical. Some Christians even equate abortion with murder.
So if humans create the technology to produce children in a lab, what does that do to this idea? Does a child grown in lab from genetically manipulated DNA still contain the breath of God? Is this child still special or does that only happen when a child is the result of sexual intercourse? If what makes a human special is inheriting Adam’s soul, then does a child created in lab even have a soul?
The answer, if you’re a traditional Christian who reads the Genesis story literally, is no. Therefore, similar to abortion, the creation of a human in a lab is unethical. In this instance, it’s unethical not because you’re taking life, but because that life is being stripped of what makes it special—it’s being stripped of a soul.
Now of course, all of this is rooted in ancient understandings of the world. Today, thanks to the advancement of science, many people, including myself, do not take the Genesis scripture literally. I do not believe that humans began with Adam and Eve. I am of the opinion that humans, like everything else on this planet, are the product of an evolutionary process.
For many Christians, the idea that humans are the product of evolution takes away all the specialness of who we are. If God didn’t create us specifically, then aren’t we just a product of random chance? We could just as easily not be here if luck hadn’t fallen our way. Whereas the Bible really makes us feel as though there was some intentionality behind our creation, evolution strips us of that purpose.
But I don’t necessarily agree with that line of thinking. In my opinion, what makes humans special is not that we were directly created by God’s hand. What makes humans special is that we have the ability to recognize that God exists. We are the only creatures on this planet that have the ability to not only ponder the existence of God, but we also have the ability to interact with God. Whether a child is born from a mother’s womb or born in a lab, that factor will not change.
Indeed, from my perspective, a human will have a soul regardless of whether it is born from a womb or in a lab. But I know many Christians will disagree with me about that. They will say that God intended for humans to have a mother and a father. There is a natural reproductive process that has been around for thousands of years and if we tamper with and subvert that process, then we are actively working against God’s natural order.
What I have noticed is that many Christians get very caught up in how a child is born. In fact, they get very caught up in the moment of birth itself. They are so invested in making sure that moment occurs that they don’t really look at any of the factors that occur before the child is conceived and after the child is born. As long as a child is born, that’s all that matters.
There’s this great quote from the Benedictine Nun, Sister Joan Chittister, who says, “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed…That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
In other words, for many Christians, abortion is just about the moment of birth. They don’t care about the social outcomes of the child. And for me, when I start to consider this whole issue of how reproduction is going to be changing over the next 20 years, that’s where my focus goes—not how the child is born, but the social outcome of the child.
So if we return to our example of Japan and the possibility of birthing children in a lab and having them grow up in a group home, it’s not the way that they’re born that matters so much to me, but how they are raised that presents some really serious ethical issues. Kids who grow up in group homes in the United States generally do not do well. These kids are placed in that system because their primary care takers cannot take care of them. They are at a much higher risk of developing mental and emotional issues.
Now part of the reason why this happens in the United States is because group homes are supposed to be temporary. They’re supposed hold you for a brief period of time until you can be placed with foster parents. So group homes in the U.S. are filled with kids who come from unstable homes. Most of them are coming from really chaotic family environments where they feel rejected or unloved.
So if they were to move forward with this idea in Japan, the group home would have to be a warm, loving and nurturing environment. It would need to look more like a tribal village than a refugee camp. If the kids are raised with the right resources where they have access to food, health care, education and most importantly loving adults who care for their needs, then it has a possibility of working out well.
In fact, these kids would be raised in an environment very similar to the one that Jesus grew up in. Jesus grew up at a time where the village raised the child. Yes, you had primary care takers, but everyone participated in raising the children. This was clearly an important part of Jesus’ life because he specifically promotes the need for caring for children in the gospel when he says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Because of Jesus’ preaching on children, the raising of children is of primary importance to the Christian life. And so as we look towards the future, in this Brave New World where children will likely be born in a vastly different manner than in the past, what Christianity has to offer is the ethical guidelines for how those children should be raised. We need communities of people who are willing to love and care, not just for their own children, but for every child, regardless of how they enter into the world.
What does this mean for you right now? It means considering what is my role in helping to raise the children in my community? How can I contribute to the health and wellbeing of the children who enter into my church? My hope and prayer for you is that you might do your best to love and care for the children in this place. One day we will be able to come back together again as a community, and when we do, I hope that you will take that call seriously, because my children and all the others who call this church home need your love, care, and devotion as much as they need it from their parents. Amen.