1000 human embryos v 5 year old child?

Last week I came across some controversy on the internet. On Twitter, to be more precise (who would have thought it!?). A man called Patrick S. Tomlinson, who goes by the handle @stealthygeek, had quite a bit to say about those of us who believe that human life begins at conception. I had never heard or come across Tomlinson before, but from a cursory glance at his Twitter profile, I gather that he is a science-fiction author with 21 thousand followers on Twitter. He seems to have accrued a few thousand of these followers from a series of tweets made on 16 October. At the time of writing, the first tweet in the series has 3.8 thousand replies,  26 thousand retweets, and 53 thousand ‘likes’.

Tomlinson claims he has been asking a single question to what he describes as the “Life Begins at Conception” crowd for 10 years, and has never been given an answer. It centres around a fictitious scenario in which you find yourself in a fertility clinic which is on fire. As you’re running out of the building, you hear a child’s cry and you open a door to find a 5 year old child in one corner of the room. In another corner is a container labelled “1000 viable human embryos.” Funnily enough, you can only save either the 5 year old or the embryos. Which do you save? Tomlinson claims that no one who believes that life begins at conception can answer the question. He states that there is a correct answer, but those who believe that life begins at conception cannot give it because it would refute their own argument.

This is where it gets interesting. Ben Shapiro (political commentator, lawyer, author, and member of the “‘Life Begins at Conception’ crowd”), among many others, gave the answer that Tomlinson claimed no one who believes that life begins at conception would ever give. Shapiro and many others stated, without hesitation, that they would save the 5 year old (thus ending Tomlinson’s claim that no one in this ‘crowd’ would share that response, as it would show that they put more value the life of a single 5 year old than a thousand unborn humans). Shapiro then went on to explain exactly why Tomlinson’s thought experiment was fundamentally flawed (if you want to read more of Shapiro’s argument, you can find it here). Tomlinson did as all good debaters do. He blocked Shapiro.

It isn’t my intention to get embroiled in this particular debate, but to share with you a story that actually happened just over 10 years ago in America. Perhaps it may offer some perspective for those, like Tomlinson, who vehemently oppose the idea that life begins at conception. The following passage is an excerpt from Fr Brendan Purcell’s From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution.

“Human beings come into existence months and years before they’re conscious of themselves as persons, yet I’d argue that who they are later is identical to who they were before they were born. Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence, and philosopher Christopher Tollefson open their book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life with the news story they call ‘Noah and the Flood’. It tells how police saved Noah from the hospital where he was trapped during hurricane Katrina which devastated new Orleans in September 2006. Noah existed as a human embryo, frozen in one of several canisters of liquid nitrogen along with 1,400 other human embryos. Sixteen months later, Noah was born, and his parents Rebekah and Glen Markham named him in honour of the survivor of an earlier flood. If he hadn’t been saved, Noah would have perished. The authors write:

Let us repeat it: Noah would have perished. For it was Noah who was frozen in one of those canisters; Noah who was brought from New Orleans by boat; Noah who was subsequently implanted in his mother’s womb; and Noah who was born on January 16, 2008.

The writers say that if Noah were asked if it was he who was rescued that day, he would say ‘Of course’. And they continue: ‘…what Noah would be saying in these two words – and his answer is confirmed by the best science – is that human embryos are, from the very beginning, human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become.’

It is vital that we see human beings as a whole, right from conception. Within the container that the police saved in 2006 was not a component of a whole person, not one viable part of personhood, but Noah himself, a person then and a person now. A society that values its weakest and most vulnerable is surely a stronger society for it.



I don’t like Mary?

Catholics love Mary. Every year approximately 5 million people visit Lourdes and Fatima, 1.5 million travel to Knock, and a staggering 15-20 million visit the Marian Shrine in Guadalupe. Veneration of the Mother of God is almost engrained in the Catholic DNA.

So why could I not bring myself to like Mary? I’ve travelled to Lourdes, said countless Rosaries, stared at statues until my eyes ached, just trying to feel something. But it never came. Many people in my parish have a great devotion to Mary, so I always felt guilty about being a bit huffy when the statue of Our Lady as she appeared in Lourdes was brought out on a Friday evening. I managed somewhat better on Saturday mornings with the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. But still, I would groan if the choir elected to sing “Lady of Knock” or “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” during Mass in May or at the Requiem Mass of a devoted parishioner. (I am still quite adamant that neither should be used in the Liturgy out of respect for good taste at least, but that is for another day…). When some Marian hymns crept into the Liturgy for no apparent reason, I was always very concerned about the intrusion of popular piety on the public prayer of the Church. And so, I was a terrible Catholic. (That’s certainly how I felt).

“The Devil hates Mary,” I read in countless blogs and articles. I continually felt I was fighting for the wrong side, but no matter how much I tried I couldn’t bring myself to feel anything resembling love for this Woman who appeared so alluring to seemingly everyone, but was too sickly-sweet for me – eyes fixed towards the heavens in a gentle gaze, hands folded softly, with perfect porcelain skin and delicate robes. This was not someone I recognised as the Mother of God. “What is wrong with me?” I hammered God repeatedly with that question.

Eventually, I accepted the answer. There was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t hate Mary. Catholics don’t have to be devoted to Our Lady of X, Y, or Z. I don’t have to believe that Mary appeared in Knock or in Lourdes or anywhere else for that matter. These are private devotions, and not central to the Catholic faith. (If they help you in your faith life, that’s brilliant – whatever genuinely brings people closer to God is always a good thing). So who was the Mary I sought? I decided to go back to the Mary I felt I could trust. The Mary who cradled her Son in birth and in death. The Mary of the Bible. The Ark of the Covenant, the Daughter of Zion, the New Eve.


Crushing the serpent?

Finally, I could see her. Not as a mass-produced statue or painting, not as the object of pious exercises, but as the Mother of God. Understanding how Scripture unfolded to reveal the immense majesty of Mary changed everything for me. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and your seed and her seed: she will crush your head, and you will lie in wait for her heel” (Genesis 3:15). That’s more like it! I could never really imagine the Mary of Lourdes or Knock or anywhere else actually crushing the serpent’s head (any depictions of this seem ultra-gentle and too nice to me, almost as though she is caressing it with her foot rather than crushing it). Again, when we see depictions of her “clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12:1), or “crowned with twelve stars (Rev.12:1), these appear to be such pale imitations of the reality Scripture describes. This young woman, who speaks few words in Scripture but who is vital to God’s plan for salvation, has been placed at the centre of the battle between good and evil. Not as a mighty warrior, or an angry mother wishing to avenge the death of her Son, but a woman who stands silent and ready, poised, prepared at all times to follow God’s will.

It was this silent readiness that drew me to the next link in my journey to Mary. When in Drumalis for a training workshop some time ago, I found a few spare minutes to browse the bookshelves, and as I came to the end of what I thought had been a fruitless endeavour, the words caught my eye: “A Woman Wrapped in Silence.” Reading the blurb, I discovered that this book was a lengthy narrative poem written by John W. Lynch based on a Biblical understanding of Mary and her life. And as I began to read, I realised that this was the first time outside Scripture that I had found what I could describe as a truly human portrait of Mary. It is a beautiful and powerful read, one which I continually go back to in prayer. It has helped me tremendously with my relationship with Mary and with Christ.

Finally, I can say that I love Mary. I love Mary who said Yes to God, who gave birth in the feeding place of the animals to a Son who would give Himself up to death by the most violent and cruel means, so that he would become the Bread of Life and the Saviour of the world. At last, I know how to thank her and to love her.

I’d like to finish by sharing just one of many passages from “A Woman Wrapped in Silence” which has given me countless opportunities for contemplation and prayer.

She turned to leave. A woman in the dusk before a tomb. Her veils were on her and her step was slow, and looking, she could see upon a hill a cross stabbed upright in the earth, as if it were a sword that should not be withdrawn. She paused a moment. But there was no need or reason now for her to stay. She knew. This was an ended cross and was a past. She was a woman who had borne a Son. This was a cross. And on it He had died.


The Donkey – G.K. Chesterton

A poem for Palm Sunday and Holy Week

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.