DALLAS (BP)–Does the destruction of human embryos amount to murder? White House spokesman Tony Snow put this question on the front burner recently when he described President Bush’s position as follows:
“The president believes strongly that for the purpose of research it’s inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder. He’s one of them. The simple answer is he thinks murder’s wrong.”
On a subsequent edition of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert had a testy exchange with White House chief of staff Josh Bolten on the issue. Russert pressed Bolten on whether Bush really thinks the destruction of embryos amounts to murder. Bolten’s backpedaling made clear that Snow perhaps had gone beyond what the president himself believes. And indeed, Snow followed by apologizing for the mischaracterization, saying he “overstated the president’s position.”
The question remains, however: Does the destruction of human embryos amount to murder? As a legal question, of course, it all depends on what the definition of “murder” is. Under our system of laws in the U.S., all killing does not amount to murder. If someone kills another person accidentally, they might be guilty of manslaughter, but not necessarily of murder.
Murder is when one person intentionally or premeditatedly kills another human being. This distinction between intentional versus unintentional killing is also found in Scripture. The classic text on this topic is Numbers 35, where Moses describes how to deal with the “manyslayer” versus the “murderer.”
The manslayer is one who kills another person unintentionally. This person is not liable for the death penalty as long as he flees to one of the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:6-15; 22-28). But the murderer is one who kills another person with malicious intent. This person is guilty of a heinous crime and must be put to death (Numbers 35:16-21; 29-34). The key thing to note is that the intention of the person doing the killing determines the criminality of the act.
If we apply the Numbers 35 criteria to the destruction of human embryos, what is the result? Those on the pro-life side correctly point out that the destruction of a human embryo amounts to the killing of a human being. They also point out the travesty of research programs or fertility therapies that involve the intentional destruction of these embryos.
But how are we to evaluate the morality of those who participate in destroying these embryos? Certainly their intention is to destroy the embryo. But do they know that they are destroying a human being, or perhaps has their conscience been so seared that they don’t think that embryos are human beings? This is a question that I can’t answer with certainty since I can’t see into people’s hearts.
But I think we can say a couple of things for certain. First, people who continue to participate in destroying human embryos while eschewing any serious moral reflection on the humanity of those embryos are at the very least morally guilty of something like negligent homicide.
Second, there are some pro-choice people (though not all) who acknowledge that an unborn fetus is a human person. These people remain committed to their pro-choice position because they think a woman’s right not to be pregnant outweighs an unborn person’s right not to be killed. We should not be surprised, therefore, when we hear some people applying this kind of logic to the destruction of human embryos. They will argue that the need for medical advances outweighs the right of these embryonic humans not to be killed. Anyone who makes that kind of an argument while destroying human embryos is morally culpable of murder as it is defined in law and in the Bible.
Even though Tony Snow had to retract his remarks as not representing the President’s position, I am glad that he has brought this issue to the fore. By and large, people are turning a blind eye to these unborn, embryonic humans. But Tony Snow has given those of us who care about protecting innocent human life an occasion to speak up. As long as we live in a culture with a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2), indeed we must speak up (Proverbs 24:11).
Denny Burk serves as assistant professor of New Testament at Criswell College in Dallas.