Culture Friday: The limits of religious freedom and the sanctity of human life

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Up next on The World and Everything in It: Culture Friday.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And it’s time to welcome John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Good morning, John.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: I wanted to ask you about this Oregon case, John, from a week or so ago: the parents who had twin girls. One of the babies developed complications. The parents, on religious grounds, refused medical treatment for her. The little girl died. The state stepped in, brought neglect charges, took the other baby away.

Now, you said this was a hideous illustration of a hideous double standard where abortion is concerned, and I’d like for you to talk about that.

But also this, John: What is the cultural effect of even bringing up stories like this? Other than getting people stirred up, what pro-life objective is served in the telling of these kinds of stories?

STONESTREET: Well, this is a story that has many different aspects and there’s a whole lot of things brought up, even more than just the pro-life issue. For example, the issue of the limits of religious freedom. The reason these parents neglected to seek care for this newborn child that ended up dying was because of their religious belief against seeking medical treatment.

When we argue for religious freedom, we don’t mean that religious freedom has no bounds. All freedom has limits otherwise it becomes a free for all. Now, this has been a longtime debate; from Jehovah’s Witnesses — dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses to other people of faith who, I would say, wrongly believe that God is against any sort of medical intervention; you pray for a miracle and so on. And I think the government has a role to protect citizens and there are times it needs to step in.

I think it also brings up questions theologically like why does God choose to heal some people and not others and is having well-meaning faith enough? Can you have well-intentioned, well-meaning faith that’s factually incorrect? And I think in this case these parents did and that brings up the issue of truth being outside of ourselves and not being a result of how much we believe in something but what it is that we actually believe in.

But the reason I take this case directly to the pro-life issue is because Oregon is the single most liberal state in the union when it comes to abortion. They have no abortion restrictions whatsoever. There’s no age limit, there’s no consent, there’s no waiting period. In fact, last November the governor signed into law that abortion should be free, that there should be a full state subsidy of it, including for illegal immigrants. So that’s the state we’re dealing with. So in a sense the state of Oregon steps into these parents because they allowed their child to die, the child was born at 32 weeks prematurely. If an hour earlier an abortionist had taken that same child’s life, just an hour earlier, the state would have not only been okay with it, they would have paid for it.

Now, this is illustrative of the radical inconsistency in abortion laws that we have not just in Oregon but, really, across the United States. And I think it’s worth bringing up because it allows us to do a couple things. Number one, it allows us to reveal these inconsistencies that really end up being hypocrisies on the behalf of the state, a state that has bought into this idea of abortion as birth control. We should actually reveal hypocrisies like this. Hypocrisies like talking about the need for minorities to have access to abortion when the number-one abortion provider on the planet was founded by a woman who wanted to exterminate minority populations. These are things we need to talk about.

I think we also need to talk about it because hopefully policymakers will pay attention. Policymakers should be able to see this.

Third, I think we should talk about it because it helps us make the case for life. This is a really good question. What is the difference between that 32 week old child that was allowed to die two hours after birth and two hours before birth? That’s the fundamental question of abortion. And the abortion debate right now has been thoroughly hijacked by red herrings. This is a way to get at the real issue, which is, what is the moral nature of the unborn child?

EICHER: This next one is near and dear to me: the issue aborting babies with Down Syndrome.

Personal story, here. It two decades ago, 23 years, to be exact, we had a special-needs baby named Katherine. What she had was fairly similar to Down Syndrome, which is, again, just real quickly, not to get overly technical here, but Down Syndrome is known also as Trisomy 21. And it has a specific meaning. Instead of chromosome pair number 21, there are three chromosomes. Not two. Our little girl didn’t have Trisomy 21 or Down Syndrome, she had Trisomy 18. A chromosome irregularity on the 18th pair.

And it’s a small difference, but it’s a significant difference. Trisomy 18 is very often a fatal disorder, as it was in our case.

But that’s my personal stake on this, John. I am horrified that people with Down Syndrome, any of the Trisomy cases, are so often singled out for abortion.

And here’s what I want you to comment on: You had called attention this week to a pro-choice physician up in Canada who had made an interesting argument against abortion in Down Syndrome cases. But you said that the doctor’s argument didn’t go far enough. So, could you talk a bit about that and whether, even though you found the argument insufficient, whether you think this is overall a net positive?

STONESTREET: Well, the argument was put forth by Chris Kaposi, a professor of bioethics in Canada, published a book called Choosing Down Syndrome and, basically, he’s trying to argue that more people should have children with Down Syndrome from a pro-choice, disability-positive perspective. Now, my guess is at some level this book is in response to countries like Iceland announcing, “Hey, good news, we’ve eradicated Down Syndrome.” As if that means anything other than, “Good news! We’ve killed all the little babies with Down Syndrome.” And, basically, what he’s saying is when it comes to Down Syndrome, there’s no significant difference in happiness and meaning and purpose.

Now, all of that is true. I mean, that reason, which is often given, which is we’re not ready for the sacrifice that it takes, many people are missing out on a flat-out blessing. I think those with Down Syndrome as a disability make the world a better place. Those with disability make the world a better place and it’s because all of us have disability, whether we’re talking about spiritual disability or physical disability or whatever. It doesn’t mean that it’s all easy, it just means that there’s — none of us are exempt from the effect of the fall.

The problem with this is that it still centers the right of this disabled child around subjective categories like, you know, you’ll still have meaning. The child will still be happy and so will you. As if that is a reason for not intentionally taking the life of someone. I mean, we wouldn’t accept that as a reason if we were talking about a toddler. And that’s why Kaposi’s argument, although I welcome the fact that a pro-choice bioethicist would make this argument and say what’s true about the experience of families who have children with Down Syndrome in them, I think that’s great, but there’s more that needs to be argued.

And if we don’t go to the inherent, distinct value of every single person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death, then the target won’t be fully off these children.

EICHER: Right, so maybe a net positive in this sense: that even though it’s sort of a utilitarian argument, if it catches on and there are more Down Syndrome people, more special needs people in the world, that, I guess, the heart will follow, right?

STONESTREET: No, that’s exactly right. I mean, I do this as an informal survey whenever I talk about bioethical issues in front of students, college students, or adults and you just kind of take the informal poll. How many of you have someone in your life who has Down Syndrome or has autism or any one of these reasons that are often given for aborting pre-born life and the hands will go up. And I’ll ask, “How many of you think your life is better because of them instead of worse?” And the same amount of hands go up. It’s just that this is something we need to realize. And because my disability because of sin is not on the outside of me, it’s maybe on the inside of me and it’s much more hidden and I’m able to hide it better doesn’t mean I’m any less disabled than anyone else.

And I remember — people often ask me what my favorite writing of Chuck Colson is and I’ll tell them that it is the introduction to a book written to his daughter Emily Colson about his grandson Max. The book is called Dancing with Max and Chuck wrote the introduction to it. I think it’s his finest writing. And in it he says something I think a lot of us forget. He says that there are ways Max was shielded from the fall that he was not. And you often think about that in opposite terms. Well, you know, someone with Down Syndrome, they really were affected by the fall and I wasn’t. But what if it’s the exact opposite? He said, for example, Max doesn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying what other people think. Wouldn’t that be great if you didn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying what other people think about you? And there’s ways in which people with disability are shielded from things. And that’s why I think we need each other.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday, John, thanks so much, and we’ll talk again next week.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.

(Photo/Gerber via AP) 14-month-old Lucas Warren of Dalton, Ga. won over executives at Gerber baby food who have made him their “spokesbaby” this year.

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