Acton Institute Powerblog

Evangelicals and the Brave New World: Why Natural Law Can No Longer Be Ignored

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In the Introduction to an important new book by J. Budziszewski that engages four distinct traditions of evangelical political thought, Michael Cromartie observes: “While appreciative of the contributions of each of these thinkers [Carl Henry, Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and John Howard Yoder], Budziszewski finds fault with each, to a greater or lesser degree, for failing to develop a systematic political theory as compelling as those offered by the secularist establishment. He suggests that evangelical political thought would be improved if it were informed by the tradition of natural law.” I couldn’t agree more. But I’d like to take this a step further, or, at the very least, in a slightly different direction, and one that I’m sure Budziszewski would also find complementary: evangelical bioethical thought.

There are some very good people and organizations at work in this field already, but, as with Protestant natural law thinking in general, evangelicals as a group must not only catch a vision of what’s at stake in today’s great bioethical issues but also rediscover the resources of the natural-law tradition that lie dormant within their own theological traditions. As Budziszewski states in relation to politics, but which applies perhaps more poignantly in the realm of bioethical debate, “Although evangelicals are rightly committed to grounding their political reflection in [special] revelation, the Bible provides insufficient materials for the task. This I have called the evangelical dilemma. The missing piece of this puzzle lies in the recognition that the Bible is only part of revelation.” The other part, and the one desperately needed at this point in time, is the general or natural revelation that God makes evident not only to believers but to all humankind.

In today’s commentary I attempt to alert evangelicals of the connection between IVF and the embryo “surplus” and to call for increased moral reflection by Protestants about IVF. Protestant ethicists, pastors, and lay people need to probe the moral issues surrounding IVF much more fully and to develop a moral theology that can be applied to the full range of currently contested bioethical issues.

Stephen Grabill


  • Phil Tompkins

    In such discussions such as yours, it is useful to distinguish two different meanings of the term “life”: 1) biological life and 2) what I will call personal life. Biological life is the coordinated functioning body parts. Personal life is the series of actions and experiences of the person whose life it is.

    Biological life is the medium (instrument) through which personal life happens. Biological life is valuable not in itself, but because it supports personal life.

    Personal life arises with the formation of the brain and the emergence of the mind. It is personal life that has value and dignity, that we have a right to, that we share with a loved one. It is what we fear losing and what we mourn the taking of.

    What do we mean by “person”? It’s difficult to come up with an abstract definition, but it’s easy to give examples. Sam Brownback is a person. If E.T. were real, he would be a person.

    There are grey areas. Is the Yeti or Koko the Gorilla (Koko has learned to sign – see or a 25 week-old fetus a person? It’s unclear.

    But we are not in a grey area when we consider the 5 day old blastocyst. A blastocyst is not a person, because it cannot think or act or have experience. The life that begins at conception is all biological.

    If you believe that a 5 day old blastocyst is a person, you commit what in ancient Greek philosophy is called the fallacy of the heap. Starting with a heap of sand, if you remove one grain at a time, you still are left with a heap. Continue the process until the “heap” consists of only a few grains.

    At the 5-day stage of embryonic development when stem cells are extracted there is no one whose rights are violated or whose life is taken, because there is as yet no person, no “who.” That is why donation to medical research of surplus embryos created in vitro is morally equivalent to organ donation, not human sacrifice.

    Having made this distinction, we can say that an embryo is both a potential (future) human life (personal) and a human life (biological) with potential.

  • Catherine Robinson

    So, you never existed before your brain was formed?

    Is going from conceptus to fetus not a form of experience, even if you are "personally" never consciously aware of it?

    What about that fascinating theory that every single cell in our bodies has some form of cognizance and memory?

    Is a person with dementia no longer a person?

    Is it just a body but not a person in a coma?

    Is a one-year-old human child an inferior "person" to a much more mentally and physically advanced one-year-old chimp?

    Isn’t "personhood" more than just mental capacity and function?

    Are human beings really only the sum of their biological parts, no different from "other" animals?

    According to whom? And with what factual proof, as opposed to personal opinion? And so, why sould anyone listen to them?

    A gorilla — nurtured and trained by human persons — who learns human sign language, is thus a "person"?

    What about all us adult human beings who have not learned to sign? Does that make us non-persons?

    Then it is possible for fully developed and adult human "persons" to produce other "persons" without the necessity of biology, even of gorillas, chimps, dogs, cats, pigs, and birds, simply through human-conceived training?

    My cat, who has undeniable personality, but is unapologetically only a cat, is thus a "person"?

    Why? My cat would have none of his human-interaction training, or "personality," if it weren’t for his human owners. Among his own feline kind, he would be merely a cat, more or less adept at survival as a cat and only a cat.

    And without the purposeful interference of human beings, he, like all other "domestic cats," would likely never have existed in the first place.

    So, without the mediation of human persons, these animals are simply animals of their own kind, and never can go beyond the definite limitations of their own kind with their own kind — even with our interference.

    Gorillas may have a highly trainable brain, but among their own kind, they are merely gorillas. Koko has reached her limit; the chimps that have been taught sign have all reached their limits.

    And we hear about these exceptional animals because they are exceptional; no others even within their species have attained the level of training these particular animals have, otherwise we would have daily stories of their achievements and accomplishments, too, wouldn’t we?

    Instead there are sad stories of how their likely mates or pals or offspring do not measure up and cannot seem to make the strides they have, and are often rejected; sad stories of maladjustment to their own kind. Because human persons tried to foist a deficient definition of human personhood onto them.

    Through our humanizing they have been thrust into a twilight zone of neither being human nor being fully their own kind.

    Despite the plain results of these experiments, still some of us call these non-human animal experiments "persons" who have "personhood," while human embryos, which can never be anything but human beings, are denied their obvious and rightful claim to be human beings with "personal life," or personhood, innately granted by virtue of their kind alone.

    The trained gorillas, chimps, monekys, rabbits, rats, mice, dogs, cats, and other guinea pigs, can go no further because they are not human beings. They may have personalities, but they are not human persons. They never had the potential to be, as research exploring their potential and limits has shown.

    Personhood doesn’t naturally exist in our physical realm outside of its biological vehicle. A gorilla, no matter how well nurtured and trained, will never be a human person. A human being, even reared among wolves or alongside a chimp baby, is always innately endowed with something different — personhood — as studies have shown, while their canine or simian "siblings" are not.

    A human conceptus is completely and only human. It is meant only to be human; it is genetically, physically, impossible for it to be anything else.

    Its personhood is held intrinsic to it from conception, however unrealized at that point. The obvious missing element from the discussion is, if allowed to live and develop normally, it WILL be realized. It never "aquires" personhood. The nascent person is simply suspended and contained at that stage of development, like a runner at the starting line.

    No gray area. It will never become Koko II.

    No heap. Sand will never become human — or gorilla. It is a clear fallacy — the apples-and-oranges, or, if you like, the sand-to-human being, kind — to reduce human beings at any developmental level to grains of sand.

    An embryo is simply a human being in the early stages of its own personal development. It doesn’t become less of a human life for being an embryo. Removing "grains" from it kills it, not heaps or unheaps it. It DEFINITELY cannot reach its human potential if it is killed!

    The Greeks and their sadistic "gods" may have agreed with your argument, but the Jews and their just God wouldn’t have.

    While we hold many identical genes with gorillas, chimps, amebas, sponges, sharks, corn, birds, algea — all life on earth — we also hold unique genetic combinations that will only produce human beings, not any other life form. And conversely, all our non-human genetic relatives will never produce anything but what their genes call for.

    Personhood is not mental capacity or function; it does not exist only in the mind; it is inherent in what it means to be a wholly human person, genetically similar to other earth life forms, but ultimately unique. Personhood is not something aquired along the way of biological development; it’s part of the human package.

    E.T. may have a personality, if he were real. But he would never be a human person, and the Yeti and Koko aren’t, by virtue of their species, while all 25-week-old human fetuses have been for 25 weeks already.

    And the point is we must deal with realities. We are, E.T. never was, except in the imagination of human persons (note, not in the mind of Koko or Yeti ;-). Ergo, he could only have whatever "personality" he was given by his human makers. He never was a potential human life, never was a human life with potential. He was only given any "life" through the unique imaginations of human beings, human persons.

    And I think there’s the nub: we are to other life forms on this planet — notably demonstrated in Koko and other like experiments, and in the products of our fertile imaginations — as God is to us. There can be no intelligent argument about "personhood" as long as God is barred from the discussion. Lots of "personality," perhaps, but no true personhood.

    That 5-day old human blastocyst will never become anything else but what it is, a very young human being, however indistinguishable it may be to human eyes from other species’ 5-day old blastocysts.

    That’s why we’re not extractiing stem cells from other species’ blastocysts; they’re NOT HUMAN. They will never develop into anything useful to a human body; they will always only develop into things specific to their species.


    And that human person the human blastocyst is the beginning of, will have the cognizant capacity as part of its personhood to recognize and acknowledge its Creator, and the free-will option to deliberately deny Him, something no human-trained animal has yet accomplished, and hasn’t the ability to do, regardless of their abundance of human being-initiated training and "personality."

    Even human beings with mental impairment are often able to understand the concept of God, and there are many inspirational stories of "mentally incompetent" individuals — persons, and by the logical conclusion of the reasoning of the argument I’m addressing, including children — teaching their "mental superiors" simple and pointed lessons about what it means to love and to know and love God — what it means to be a human person.

    Try getting that from Koko. She can be cute and cuddly, but can she teach you about being human and who God is?

    Every human being, no matter at what stage of development, is still and only a human being, with all the rights and privileges of their older brothers. We are our brothers’ keepers.

    It is only we, human beings with a concept of (our own innate) personhood who confer any "rights and privileges" to other animals.

    Ask a wild African lion to give you safe passage in the bush because you don’t intend him any harm — you respect his rights as a fellow person on this planet and ask his reciprocal respect. Or even try this with a "tame" lion that doesn’t know you!

    Triple dog dare ya!

    But a 5-day old human blastocyst is expendable because it cannot manifest its personhood in a way you choose to recognize and respect?!

    Yeah, this is logic. What’s the difference, in this instance, between an older, powerful human person who can choose whether a blastocyst deserves the chance to realize the potential inherent in its human personal life, and that African lion in the bush — or off the leash?

    Don’t you see? We call the shots; in the absence of a visible, physically present God we must answer to, we wield the power of life and death, and as human persons, with "personal life," with realized personhood, that ought to fill us with humble and holy fear!

    CAN is not an OUGHT.

    "Personal life" rightly matured ought to recognize value and dignity in even a "potential" human life as also a human life WITH potential. The very words connote immediacy and intrincity.

    It is not possible to have a human life without "personal life" and personhood; it may be gorilla life or algea life, but not human.

    You cannot have a human embryo without a "who" for this very reason: it cannot realize any other "potential" than that of human personhood. Just because YOU don’t know who it is does not mean it is not a who! That’s a ridiculous non seqitor.

    It is a very young human being with the potential only to grow up to human adulthood. What stands between it and its potential is adult human persons who consciously deny it equal status.

    None of us persons starts anywhere else.

    It’s only unclear if you choose not to see.

    We call persons who objectify other human beings sociopaths and psychopaths. They have no ability to recognize their equals in other human beings. In their view, other human beings are without value and dignity, without "personal life" or personhood.

    God save us from such inhumanity.

    "Person" is that innate essence in a human being made in the image of God, and created within every human being from its beginning since God first created Adam.

    You may recall that God created human beings in His image, THEN breathed animation into the physical body of Adam, not the other way around. God created the person, personhood, "personal life," BEFORE He created the physical body of Adam. Those who interpret the human body as the image of God and set that up as a straw man to deny God have it backwards.

    Personhood is thus innate in us and includes our free will and the freedom to abuse it, resulting in sin; our conscience, which tells us when we abuse it by sinning, and manifests itself by either denying and defending the sin, however artfully, as Phil has done above, or by acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of it.

    Being a person is to be a human being from conception, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights (the Founders got that right), the first of which is to be protected from murder committed by our own kind.

    The first sin was to pretend to be God, to claim the power of life and death: the knowledge of good and evil.

    The second sin was like it: murder, acting on seizing the power of life and death in God’s place.

    Then, when God questioned the first murderer, Cain denied that he was his brother’s keeper, that he had any responsibility for guarding and preserving his brother’s life.

    The Apostle John asked, "How can you love God, whom you have not seen, if you do not love your brother, whom you have seen?"

    With the help of modern science and microscopes (otherwise we couldn’t be discussinig blastocysts, etc.), we know every human being, every human person, complete with personhood and "personal life," starts at conception. There is no other beginning, and we are all charged with protecting human life, at whatever stage, not excused for ending it.

    Nothing about being human, a person, having personhood, or "personal life," changes any of that, only our own sinful ego that refuses to let God alone be God alone.

    HUMAN LIFE begins at conception. A HUMAN PERSON is conceived when the gametes join. Every single gene needed for a HUMAN PERSON is contained within the conceptus from the beginning. There is no point in time durning development when a "personal life" with value and dignity comes into separate existence.

    That’s why every single human being is different from every other. It isn’t just biology or "personal life" that makes our infinte variety, but the very new, unique, whole life generated at fertilization.

    Without stopping the natural development of that new life, it will realize its future, personal, and biological "potential." That’s what LIFE is.

    Life is potential; death is its thief.

    Why aren’t we content with extracting and developing stem cells from adults and umbilical cords, which don’t pose any threat, real or imagined, against "potential" human beings? In more than 20 years of research, over and over again adult and umbilical cord stem cells have yielded good results already, while embryonic stem cells, however extracted and manipulated, have only produced negative and deadly results and implications.

    If something works well, and its competitor doesn’t, why promote and insist on the competitor? What is the rationale behind going with proven disaster while rejecting the proven potential and results of a non-controversial method?

    That belies that this is not really about medical research and helping humanity through "stem cell research," but about who can dictate who lives and who dies for totally utilitarian reasons.

    No grey areas, but plenty of hogwash.

  • Philippok


    What punishment would you give to a woman who aborted her own fetus?

  • Neil Silva

    With due respect, I submit that the ethical issues in the debate have been obscured by its overlong concentration on the definition of ‘person’. This is not to say that such ethical-legal discussion is irrelevant, especially considering the wording of the 5th and 14th Amendments and the post-New Deal interpretation of substantive due process; however, insofar as ethical-legal reasoning applies categories to empirical data, we must situate the basis of the debate in the latter before debating its behavioral ramifications.

    In sum, we note that the debate centers on the question of whether, and where, the developmental changes among early prenatal, later prenatal, and postnatal homo sapiens justify substantial differences in their ethical-legal treatment.

    (a) From a microbiological perspective, it must be noted that there is no radical distinction between the two stages as would justify similarly radical ethical-legal distinctions, for while there are phenotypical differences, there are little/no genotypical ones. The growth and development of the early prenatal to later prenatal stage is primarily defined by characteristics and codon/nucleotide patterns imprinted in the first stages of embryonic development, notwithstanding qualitative structural changes from embryo to fetus; and while the environmental location change at birth causes peripheral chemical changes, basic biochemical characteristics like nucleic acid and blood antigen composition remain the same. The more fundamental changes occur at the stage of fertilization, when chemical materials from gametes (ova, spermatozoa) combine into a new diploid cell.

    (b) Closer to the ‘person’ controversy is the possible change from the precognitive to the cognitive stage. The exact time of the shift is indeterminate, since it is less a once-for-all change than a gradual change, may differ among individuals, and is difficult to verify, with the criteria for verification being subject to some dispute. It is, however, generally conceded that there is a change in the manner of human functioning at this developmental junction, the details being uncertain.

    Hence, verifiably radical changes only occur at two junctions, fertilization (“conception”) and cognition (“the age of reason”). With reference, therefore, to empirical data, it is more reasonable to assign cognition rather than birth as the demarcation, if any, between stringent and less stringent ethical-legal protection. The logically tenable alternatives are, thence, whether (i) to extend to born and preborn the customarily stringent protection accorded to born infants, or (ii) to give born infants the same treatment given to preborn (with due regard to viability) under the Roe decision. The former is often defended based on the ethical axiom of the fundamental unity and equality of human beings, while the latter position, notably examined by Mary Anne Warren in her “postscript on infanticide”, is based on the postulated importance of intra-human classifications, e.g., Warren’s distinction between biological/genetic vs. moral humans.

    Decision on this and related points would, in our jurisdictions, be made by political bodies, including courts whose judges have preferred ideologies and that enforce legal norms decided through power-based processes. In view thereof, I submit that a prudential consideration of the issues would militate in favor of alternative (i) above. For one, termination of early-stage homo sapiens is relatively more irreversible than the alternative, and is thence more preferable in view of the legal indeterminacy of the issues involved. Moreover, the inevitable dominance of power-based processes, with their vulnerability to non-acceptable results even in less disputed issues, requires a presumption in favor of more maximal protection than less, of less irreversible actions, and in favor of continued biological functioning, which is a more a precondition to other functions than vice versa. These are without prejudice to other points, of course, but I think these are the more basic.

  • Anon

    Blah blah blah.

    This article isn’t for micro-biologists and Greek philosophy majors, it’s for Christians. The word games are unnecessary, and silly in my opinion.

    As a matter of faith, if life begins at conception, IVF is wrong.