By CRG staff - interview with Barrett Duke

 Barrett Duke, PhD, is Vice President for Public Policy and Research and Director of the Research Institute of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the Southern Baptist Convention's agency for social and moral concerns.


GeneWatch:  Where do the Southern Baptist positions come from? Who decides where you fall on the issues and what you'll be pushing for in Washington?

Barrett Duke:  There are a couple of guides for us. One is the resolution process that Southern Baptists engage in each year in their annual meeting. We have a committee that considers resolutions on a whole range of social, moral and theological issues. Oftentimes they will propose, and the annual meeting will adopt, a resolution that addresses a moral issue in some kind of way that has policy implications. My organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has the responsibility to basically make sure that the values that resolution calls for are promoted in Washington, D.C. and around the world as well. Since the Convention often only meets once a year and there are a lot of issues that come up during the rest of the year, our commission will often need to look at what the issue is, talk to professionals in that particular area, develop a position that we believe reflects the teachings of the Bible and the commitments of Southern Baptists, and begin to work toward it.

GW: Would I be right in thinking that in the Southern Baptist positions on reproductive technologies, the central theme is protecting the sanctity of life?

BD:  That is the overriding theme for most Southern Baptists, and certainly the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission: to protect life at all stages.

GW:  Beginning at fertilization?

BD: Yes, beginning at fertilization, and even including the process toward fertilization. We believe that there are certain ethical boundaries even prior to fertilization that couples and societies ought to respect as well.

GW: Does that apply then to egg donation, sperm donation, surrogacy, or other assisted reproductive technologies?

BD: On most of these issues there isn't a so-called "official" Southern Baptist position; but most Southern Baptists are in agreement that while we certainly sympathize with couples who have difficulty having children, and we want to support them, we still believe there are certain boundaries that need to be maintained. The issue of surrogacy is a serious one for us. It raises serious questions about who the parents are, who has legal rights to the children, the parents' relationships with the children and how they are raised. We have serious concerns about the whole concept of surrogacy, and with egg and sperm donation as well.

GW: So in this case, it's less about sanctity of life than about sanctity of marriage?

BD:  No, I would say the issues are still primarily about the sanctity of life, but they certainly have implications for marriage as well, especially with the issue of surrogacy. But when you're talking about sperm donation, are you talking about sperm donated from the husband or from another male? So there are also implications here for what exactly is the nature of marriage itself.

GW: And the Southern Baptist Convention encourages adoption as an alternative for infertile couples.

BD: We do encourage adoption, not only for infertile couples but for all couples who would consider the needs of thousands of children who are unable to experience the important relationships with a mother and a father. So we encourage adoption for all couples, but we certainly encourage adoption for infertile couples. And that can be adoption not only of children who have already been born, but also adoption of embryos in fertility clinics, where they have been frozen and are waiting to be given the chance to fully develop-what's referred to as a "snowflake adoption."

GW: The clinics are there, the embryos are already there, but how do you feel about the purposes of the fertility clinics themselves?

BD:  Well, we certainly have concerns about how fertility clinics operate. Again, on this question there is no official Southern Baptist position. We do know that there are Southern Baptist couples who have resorted to fertility clinics and in vitro fertilization, and what we encourage is that couples who are considering that option fertilize no more eggs than they are prepared to have implanted, so they make sure that they are at least not deliberately planning to basically conceive children that are never going to be given a chance to fully develop.

GW: I imagine that would be an issue in pre-implantation diagnosis or sex selection, where a couple might choose a fertilized embryo that has their desired traits. Of course, genetic manipulation can go well beyond that. Is there an official Southern Baptist position on human genetic manipulation?

BD: The Convention is on record in opposition to cloning, and our members are clearly in opposition to sex selection and to any genetic selection criteria. The Convention has significant concerns with any effort to determine which humans have the right to life and which ones do not.

GW: Are there certain passages of Scripture that you find yourself bringing up to illustrate these positions?

BD: I think our arguments generally begin with the teaching in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God. It doesn't tell us that some human beings are created in the image of God, or that some human beings have more of His image than others; the Biblical teaching is that every human being is created in the image of God and thus deserves equal respect and, we believe, equal protection under the law.

GW: Issues like human genetic manipulation and assisted reproductive technologies often seem to create strange bedfellows. Have you found yourself working with unexpected allies on Capitol Hill?

BD: We do. In this work, you find groups that you have an issue in common with, and you work with them on that issue. Maybe you don't agree on hardly anything else, but you do find agreement on that issue. When you can find common cause, you should work together. Right now we're working on gene patenting, which has us working with some groups considerably to the left of us on many social issues, but we're all in agreement that it's unethical to allow anyone to own naturally occurring genetic material.

GW: Do you also encounter any unexpected opposition from folks you might otherwise be in agreement with?

BD: You know, on the gene patenting issue, I can't say that we've encountered opposition from any surprising groups; but there are occasions where, when we join in a coalition, we don't get everybody who is a natural ally with us. Often they have concerns about possible implications of a policy that they just can't support, so they end up opposing it. So yes, on occasion we end up in opposition with groups who tend to be natural allies on other issues.

GW: Some of the other contributors to this issue of GeneWatch have addressed the reluctance of some pro-choice advocates to involve themselves too deeply in issues surrounding assisted reproductive technology, for fear of muddling their message on women's reproductive rights. How do the Southern Baptist positions on assisted reproductive technologies fit into the pro-life point of view?

BD: I think that the Southern Baptist Convention is fairly mainstream on its commitment to the protection of life. There are some groups that find it more difficult to engage in incremental strategies toward protecting life-they feel that they have to protect all of life if they are going to protect any life. So it makes it more difficult to engage in some strategies that would at least limit, for example, the number of abortions. We might back some policy that moves us closer to ending all elective abortion, and if it doesn't accomplish the entire goal, we might still feel that it is significant progress. Some groups don't feel like they can make that step. We understand that, and we sympathize with that concern. So yes, there are times when the particular issue that we're involved in doesn't get agreement from everybody; but the long term goals are the same between Southern Baptists and most other pro-life groups as well, and that is to end the current regime of elective abortion as it exists in this country today.

GW: How high do reproductive technologies rank on your priority list?

BD: The sanctity of life is our top priority issue; everything from conception to natural death, anything that touches on the sanctity of human life is a top-tier issue for us. But oftentimes there just isn't any movement at the moment in any of those areas, and I would say that right now, there just isn't any movement on reproductive technologies. There is movement on some abortion questions, and we're dealing with this gene patenting questions, but I'm not aware of any significant movement of trying to reign in the current Wild West practices in the United States regarding reproductive technologies. If there were-if we found some interested parties who were trying to get movement on that-we would certainly partner with them and try to make some progress on it. It is a sanctity of life issue, so it is a top-tier issue for us, and we are ready to begin working on it as soon as we feel that there is an opportunity.

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