Dumb question of the week: Are test-tube babies less than human?

Dumb question of the week: Are test-tube babies less than human? October 7, 2010

FOREVER on the prowl for something – anything – to divert attention from the global child abuse scandal in which it is so deeply mired – the Roman Catholic Church this week trumpeted its outrage over the Nobel Prize awarded to Robert Edwards, known as the father of the test-tube baby and the inventor of in-vitro fertilisation.

Professor Robert Edwards
Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his IVF work – an award which brought swift condemnation from Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, described the award as “out of order,” and said:

Without Edwards, there would be no market for human eggs; without Edwards there would not be freezers full of embryos waiting to be transferred to a uterus, or, more likely, used for research or left to die, abandoned and forgotten about by all.

Since then, a number of conservative Christian organisations and commentators have rallied behind the Church in its condemnation of Edwards – but the prize for the most stupid reaction to the award must go to Cathy Lynn Grossman, who – in an article entitled Test tube babies’: God’s work or human error? written for the “Faith and Reason” section of USA Today – posed two deeply offensive questions:

• Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes – or mind or hands, depending on your theology/philosophy – of God? Does the science behind this merit the Nobel Prize for Medicine or condemnation in the realm of faith and ethics?
• Do you think a baby conceived in test tube is still a child in the eyes of God? Does the science behind this merit a Nobel Prize, or ethical condemnation? And what about the parents? Is their IVF choice selfish or loving? Are they creators – or merely shoppers?

This provoked a furious response from P Z Myers, over at Pharyngula, who asked:

So what are these children? Soulless zombies? Or are they just damned?

He added:

I find it disturbing that some people consider the circumstances of a child’s conception to be serious grounds for contemplating their status as members of the human race. This is where magical thinking about undetectable spiritual entities leads you — to a different kind of dualism, where I am privileged because I’ve imagined that I’m granted a soul, while you are lesser because I’ve imagined that you have not … and by the way, you have no means to challenge my claims, which are entirely ethereal and supernatural and also accepted by the majority of the law makers and enforcers in my country.
And it’s incredibly offensive to go further and suggest that the parents of these children, who have gone to extraordinary expense and trouble to conceive, are mere “shoppers, as if people who get pregnant in a casual evening’s rut are somehow necessarily conscientious ethical philosophers and serious about their children, while someone who sinks $10,000+ dollars into invasive medical procedures and subjects their body to a few months of stressful hormonal treatments must be getting pregnant on impulse.

There really are stupid questions. Grossman just asked a few, and is entirely oblivious to what they imply about her and her attitudes towards children born by methods of which she disapproves. What next? Shall we consider ostracizing a few bastards, too?

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  • barriejohn

    Is it any wonder that a certifiable religiot should come out with nonsense like this? They are forever tying themselves in knots in their doomed attempts to marry their Bronze Age philosophy with the complexities of modern life.
    Does anyone else you remember that Victoria Wood sketch:
    We wanted a test tube baby because we’ve only got a tiny flat and we thought it wouldn’t take up much space!

  • Daz

    “Faith and Reason”
    Now there’s an oxymoron, if ever I saw one. With the emphasis on the last two syllables…

  • Broadsword

    I wonder what sort of soulless creature would arise if the haploid DNA encrusting Stephen Green’s beard was crossed with anything?
    Seriously, do the sane majority pay any attention to those who peddle medieval superstition anymore? Clips of their speeches would make excellent Harry Hill-fodder.
    None of us has a soul, except this guy who’s adamant he does:

  • Har Davids

    Let’s answer this age-old question first: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? and then we’ll move on to the ‘humanity’ of test-tube babies. Faith and Reason indeed. If this woman is so much in bible-punching, shouldn’t she be silent because of her sex? It would save us some stupid questions.

  • Daz

    Har Davids: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
    That’s an easy one:
    Let the total surface area of the soles of an angel’s feet be X
    Let the number of angels be Y
    Let the surface area of the head of a pin be Z
    That’s the hard part done, I’ll let you fill in the numbers…

  • tony e

    Cheers for the link.
    Poor kid, it’s bad enough being ginger and fat, but a christian as well? That’s one sick god.

  • Broga

    Just reading this religious drivel is gut churning. Who are these sick ignoramuses to make such pronouncements? Steeped in their own stupidity they have no recourse but to invent some phony spiritual pronouncement. I wonder how many of the unelected bishops, kept fat on tax funded expenses and subsidised dinners in the House of Lords, go along with this repellent nonsense.

  • Newspaniard

    Note: You don’t have to be illegitimate to be a bastard.

  • barriejohn

    I think maybe that that poor kid’s not just being picked on because of his ginger hair, but I don’t know how one would explain it to him!

  • “left to die, abandoned and forgotten about by all”
    You mean just like what naturally happens to loads of embryos in a woman’s reproductive tract? A pretty high proportion fail to implant without the woman’s even being aware of it. Praise be to God, the Great Abortionist in the Sky! Just another example of STD (Stupid Theological Design).

  • “I wonder what sort of soulless creature would arise if the haploid DNA encrusting Stephen Green’s beard was crossed with anything?”
    Fuck me, Broadsword, that’s priceless! (from another ex-Cardiff biochemist…)

  • Daz– If X is infinity, does that give you an imaginary number of angels?:))

  • Mark Richards

    I would love to share a photograph of our twins, age 7, in thanks to Professor Edwards. My bride and I could not conceive naturally. Because of his work and the experts who apply it, we have a family, something we had hoped for.
    In my dream, these same children will grow up and one day pee on the grave of the catholic church. It would be a fitting statement.
    Screw them and their antiquated idiocy.

  • Holland

    I’m lost for words Goddammit

  • Har Davids

    Mark Richards, why not have your kids, who I personally consider part of the human race, pee on the steps of a church or over a bible as soon as possible? They might get away with a hate-crime or two, because of their age.

  • mikespeir

    As much as PZ’s attitude annoys me sometimes, he’s usually right on with his analyses.

  • William Harwood

    A “bastard” (Hebrew: mamzer) was originally the offspring of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. That is what it meant when the Deuteronomist declared that even the tenth-generation descendant of a mamzer was unwelcome in the Jewish community. In the Jesus religion, it evolved into a “child of many fathers”, based on the belief that children were jointly fathered by every man who had intromitted his sperm into a woman prior to its birth, whether four months before the birth or twenty years. (That was the reason for the virginity fetish.) The final distortion before the word virtually disappeared from the English language, in recognition that it was as much a hate-word as nigger, kike, or scab, labelled as a bastard a person whose paternity was NOT in dispute, on the ground that its parents were not licensed to breed by the ruling theocracy.

  • DS

    I really, really, really, hope this man dies.
    The only way my wife was able to become pregnant is due to the work of Professor Edwards.
    Now, if “god” didn’t fuck up every once and a while, nobody would need IVF.

  • Don

    Good to see that the comments were pretty unanimous in their disgust.
    I suppose that if they are not real humans in the eyes of god then it would be okay to enslave them or hunt them for sport or exterminate them. Which is of course ridiculous, as christians would never do that to a group they have concluded to be outside the fold.

  • Janstince

    Actually, you can see through the use of limits that the number of angels approaches 0 as X approaches infinity. I’d suggest reading “Life, the Universe, and Everything” for some more hilarious uses of limits and averages.
    Also, it’s not as simple as taking the area of the pin’s surface. You have to account for the curvature. In order to determine the number of angels that could fit, we’d also need to know the quality of the finish on the pin as well as what kind of shoes the angels are wearing, coupled with some factors for the dancing moves. It’s really quite stupid, all in all, to waste so much time on it when I could be playing with my pump head [end nerdity].

  • Harry

    I do wish more people would adopt instead of going for fertility treatment. But seriously, if how a person is conceived affects whether they are a person or not then surely so does what music was playing, what position the parents were in and whether they had weetabix for breakfast that day.

  • Daz

    yokohamamama & Janstince
    I quite like the idea of angels with infinity large feet, though, ’cause we all know anthropoids with huge feet are Hobbits. And if they went to a hotel they’d be Hilbert’s Hobbits…
    I’ll get me coat.

  • Any child not conceived in missionary position by a married Christian man and woman who hate each other, and who are thinking of Jesus for the duration of the sex act, is not human in the eyes of god. Duh.

  • Marcus

    So, the grand designer’s world includes people who can’t actually conceive as they were surely, specifically, programmed by him to do.
    Hmmm. Does that mean that he/she/it is completely incompetent or, shock horror, that there is no grand designer?
    Shit or doesn’t exist. Seems like a simple choice to me.

  • Daz

    “Shall we consider ostracizing a few bastards, too?”
    In “Tess Of The D’Urbervilles” a priest refuses to bury an illegitimate child. I’d assume this reflects reality, at the time at least, though to what extent I don’t know.

  • JohnMWhite

    Daz, I think he refused to baptise it while it was alive, then it passed on and so could not be buried in consecrated ground, though it’s been a while since I read it. Either way, I do think it was a fair reflection of church feeling at the time regarding bastards. I wonder if, since these test tube babies are not necessarily a child in the eyes of god, does that mean that it’s ok to abort them?

  • Daz

    “…does that mean that it’s ok to abort them?”
    I bet that’s a kettle of fish they’d rather not see opened. Really good point!
    I’ve not read Tess since I left school but I believe you’re right. Thinking on it, one of the Cadfael novels (I was bored. There was nothing else to read…) revolves around a similar plot-point.

  • @JohnM–I think that’s right about Tess.
    Regarding IVF–if the catholic church’s position is that children born as a result of the IVF procedure is that they are not quite human, does that imply that they don’t have a soul? That would be the thing, I think, that would make them “less human” in the eyes of the church. But doesn’t the church also insist that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception? How do they propose that a test tube would prevent that? It is, after all, open at one end… I do love to watch the Church struggling in its own tangled doctrine:)
    @Janstince–use a silk pin, it’s stainless steel and has a flat head. Shoes are immaterial, and the dance? The Electric Slide, I expect. I’ve been a HHG fan since the 7th grade, but I haven’t got enough fingers and toes to figure out how long ago that was:) My copy of LUE has apparently fallen through a freak wormhole in the spacetime continuum during one of my many moves (probably somewhere over the Pacific), and I don’t remember that bit about limits and averages! If you could post the first part of it, it would make my day. (My brain hurts…)

  • Russell W

    Religiots will never concede that the human body is a biochemical machine,since they can’t argue that IVF is impossible, it must be ‘unnatural’.
    Angels don’t have ‘feet’, so X=0.

  • Daz

    “Angels don’t have ‘feet’, so X=0.”
    They went metric?

  • JohnMWhite


  • Mark Richards

    Har Davids: Good thought. Here in the US the freedom to express has yet to be destroyed entirely, but we are on the way. At the moment I suspect one could be nabbed for “indecent exposure” however!

  • Russell W

    Oh,jeeez,very punny.

  • OurSally

    >I do wish more people would adopt instead of going for fertility treatment.
    Adoption seems to be very easy for anyone in the USA.
    In some places (Europe) there are not many unwanted babies, so huge waiting lists for adoptions. The adoption agencies restrict access in many strange ways, for example; both parents must be under 30, mother has to stay at home, father’s job has to be respectable (not run a pub), must have the same skin colour, must be in a hetero marriage…
    Of course this does not apply for pop stars or German chancellors.

  • barriejohn

    Our Sally: Sadly, the religious influence is still strong in “modern” Europe!

  • David Anderson

    As I said over at Pharyngula. Wasn´t their jebus the first test tube baby?
    They should tread lightly.

  • Bob Hughes

    Our third go at IVF worked but the pregnancy was ectopic: my wife nearly died and lost a fallopian tube. Our fifth attempt worked: scans showed a boy – Frederick George (er, the name wasn’t on the scan but that’s what we chose, looking forward to “FGH” and a joke to his musician godparents for the first introduction, “Would you care to Handel Frederick George?”). I suppose you had to be there.
    We flew to Greece in the sixth month of pregnancy, with doctor’s blessings; great, in fact, for health and so on. Five days in – utterly glorious days till then – Sarah had a spontaneous leak of amniotic fluid which, despite the Greek doctors’ best efforts, eventually led to waters breaking, the death of Freddy and Sarah having ten hours’ agonising delivery through an unready cervix and with no analgesia (which might have delayed the necessary contractions). No food or water for her for three days, either; they kept her nil by mouth in case of surgery.
    After that (and with Sarah stunningly restored to serenity after the torture), we had him to hold for half an hour; perfectly-formed. Anyone who tells me that wasn’t our “real” child is going to be looking down the barrel of a swiftly incoming fist.
    Fred’s now scattered over a hillside in Mitilene, location of the hospital, where I was actually allowed to stay with Sarah the whole time. There is also some comfort that this worst thing happened in the loveliest place; we had five days on the island for R&R after Sarah’s ordeal, wonderfully attended by supportive Greeks, loads of TLC and a deeper bond than ever with the place and people. Freddy had a beautiful, short life: bitter-sweet; he swam in the Aegean, ate heartily and heard us laughing a lot.
    Subsequent IVF attempts haven’t worked and we’ve now resigned ourselves to the realities of body-clocks. To anyone unwise enough to offer her any “religious” succour, Sarah tends to quote Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone: “God’s been a real sport to me!” The Christian (and other “spiritual”) offers of understanding are bad enough. This latest declaration, though, is just about as ignorant and insensitive as even these self-righteous and ever-so-tolerant charmers could be expected to squat.

  • NeoWolfe

    Bjohn said: “They are forever tying themselves in knots in their doomed attempts to marry their Bronze Age philosophy with the complexities of modern life.”
    Response: Often true. But, when it comes to medical science there are issues that the fundies see in an irrational light, but that science is ignoring in deliberate denial.
    For millions of years, evolution has used “survival of the fittest” as a tool to improve life on earth. It knows what it’s doing, and if there were a better way, it would have found it. Medical science, by interfering with the natural process of eliminating the defective, has introduced a random imperitive of saving the weak. I’m a compassionate individual, and if a person can be saved to live a normal life, he/she should be, but to impose such an intrusion on natural selection is a recipe for genetic disaster in the absense of some common sense counter-measures.
    The first word that surfaces is “eugenics”, and immediately memories of the nazis and the master race surface. But, this has nothing to do with that. It’s common sense realization that, despite the noblest motivation, interference with evolution and natural selection inevitably will render undesirable consequences.
    Science is good, arrogance is disaster.

  • Anonymous

    Cathy Lynn Grossman at “Faith and Reason” slapped back at Pharyngula in this column

  • Bob Hughes

    Actually, when you say “common sense counter-measures” to the “imbalance” in nature created by medical science, the first word that comes to my mind is not “eugenics”: what would you do to restore that “balance,” wind back the clock to the Dark Ages? take a nostalgic (and probably short-lived) trip down pre-vaccination way? It’s a trifle wonky to suggest that IVF diddles with natural selection. In that case, so do heart-transplants, social security and the X Factor. Human creativity, whether in science or the arts, “defies” nature; what’s music got to do with survival, for instance? This doesn’t mean that Darwin is in any way denied. Indeed, IVF metaphorically represents a spit in the eye of a creator who, if she/he or shit actually existed, has often been remarked to be a bit of a cruel twat. Incidentally, it’s also pleasant to reflect that a lot of the art appropriated as “divine inspiration/celebration” – the paintings of Michelangelo, the poetry of George Herbert – works just as well, if not better, with the god-bothering elements ignored or taken as the mere fantastical premise for work that is actually a celebration of all that’s human. I think Galileo could have got behind that, too.

  • Broadsword

    Cheers Tim.
    At least my comment didn’t bomb as completely as the “in joke” my otherwise witty accountant told me….
    tony e
    I initially pitied the kid in the video. To me he looked like a depressed child until he started ranting. He can look after himself.

  • barriejohn

    NeoWolfe: I can’t believe that you have said that! I have no idea what issues “science is ignoring in deliberate denial”. You seem to have a very simplistic view of that much misused term survival of the fittest. Other animals than humans also show compassion towards weaker members of their species.

  • NeoWolfe

    Bjohn said: : “I can’t believe that you have said that!”
    Of course you can’t. As always you fatally missed the point. Nature and natural selection is a viscious machine, but it works. We, with our human compassion have overturned that machine. The inevitable result is the retention of defective traits in our gene pool. The road to destruction is paved with good intentions.
    It’s not rocket science, just common sense.

  • barriejohn

    NeoWolfe: You accused scientists of acting in a DELIBERATELY amoral, if not immoral, way, and you have said nothing to justify or apologise for that ludicrous statement. I would say that scientists agonize far more over the morality, benefits and consequences of their actions than the religious, with their childish outlook, ever will!