Science, religion and the HHS mission statement

The United States Department of Health and Human Services recently described its mission as “serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.” A statement like this should draw cheers from every quarter. 

It should not be controversial for an agency created to protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to include all human life in its mission goals. Sadly, what shouldn’t be controversial, is. 

The HHS has since revised its Mission Statement to omit the phrase “beginning at conception.” We can no longer know whether it is concerned with all Americans, or only some of them.

I don’t know what forces conspired to purge this language from the HHS Mission Statement. But I do know that some critics thought that protecting human life from the moment of conception violated “the separation of church and state.” That accusation needs to be answered.

First, a point of fact. The phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the Constitution. Not even the idea is found in the Constitution. The Constitution was designed to allow the church, and church members to have full-throated participation in the government without having to deny their faith as the cost of doing business.

The non-establishment clause, the free exercise clause, and explicit prohibitions against a religious test for public office are all designed to let people of faith into the government, not to keep them out.

Building on this point of fact, we must make a second point. It is a highly dangerous practice to use labels in place of sound reasoning. If we allow viewpoints to be excluded from the public square just because they are “religious,” without actually considering whether they are true, we will all become idiots. 

Imagine living in a society where those in power could overturn the plain truth simply by calling it “religious.” In fact, you don’t have to imagine it. We are dangerously close to this already. 

Progressive ideology is in the process of dismantling and marginalizing any number of the most basic facts of human well-being, facts which were universally understood only a few years ago. If this dangerous trend is not stopped, none of us can guess which truths will be overturned next.

Let me emphasize that phrase, “none of us.” The previous paragraph was not intended to be partisan. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle is attacking the truth. When the truth falls, both sides are hurt in unpredictable ways.

So, a third point is this: basic biology is not a distinctly religious belief. It is common knowledge which does not require any divine revelation or ecclesiastical authority to prop it up. 

Believers take a lot of unjust criticism for being unscientific and gullible on points of basic knowledge. In cases where believers make moral judgments in agreement with non-believers, based on the very best modern embryology, it should call for dancing in the streets, rather than more unjust criticism.

Having made these three general points, let’s look at basic embryology to see if the HHS statement was sound.

I was recently privileged to hear Dr. Maureen Condic, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine. On a Saturday in September she laid out for us the amazing details of the first moments of human life.

The most fundamental fact of modern biology is that your body is continually replicating cells both to grow new tissue and to replace dying cells. From the day you were born, you have been growing and thriving through this process. Even though your cells are continually changing, you still remain you.

As we trace you back in time, we know that entire organs both come into being and mature at different points in your history. All of this is directed by the genetic code found in every one of your cells.

The science of embryology has traced this continual development all the way back to a single-cell organism called the zygote. What is most amazing about a zygote is that it is entirely self-contained and self-directed. 

Just as your current body grows, matures, and repairs damage on its own – so long as you have a safe environment and adequate nutrients – so also a zygote. From the moment you came into being as a zygote, you had absolutely everything you needed to grow, mature, and repair yourself – so long as you had a source of nutrition and a safe environment.

Put another way, your mother’s body didn’t add anything to your being. All the womb does is to provide a safe environment and adequate nutrition. Otherwise, the developing embryo is completely self-sufficient. 

In fact, while the womb is the usual place for the development of the child, there have been several amazing cases where a child was nurtured to full term in ectopic pregnancies. In Ogden, in 1999, a bouncing baby named Sage Dalton was delivered by C-section after developing fully to term outside her mother’s womb. There have even been four documented cases of children being brought to full term in their mothers’ livers!

Given that from the zygote stage onward, we are fully independent and self-directed organisms, let’s have a close look at the moment when the zygote comes into being. 

One critic of the HHS Mission Statement claimed that “no new life is formed [when the zygote comes into being] since “the egg and the sperm were already alive.” This argument was published recently in the Los Angeles Times by Dr. Richard Paulson. 

But everyone has already known since the days of Louis Pasteur that all life arises from life. Nobody would ever claim that a new life could possibly arise from non-living material. The question is this: when does a new life come into being?

The simple scientific answer to this question can be answered by comparing both the makeup and the function of the cells that come together, with the zygote that results from their coming together.

The makeup of the living sperm cell is purely the genetic material of the father. The function of the sperm cell is to move toward an egg (oocyte) and fertilize it. Once it has reached its goal, the sperm cell ceases to be. It dissolves altogether so that it no longer has its original makeup and it can no longer do what it was designed to do.

The egg, likewise, is made up totally of the genetic material of the mother. Its function is to receive fertilization from a sperm cell. Once this happens, not only does its genetic makeup change by the addition of the sperm cell’s material, but it no longer functions as an egg.

Immediately, the new cell secretes chemicals which prevent any further fertilization. It no longer acts like an egg at all. That’s why embryologists don’t call it a “fertilized egg.” There is no such thing. It is a human zygote, a new single-celled human being who will grow to maturity if fed and sheltered. 

None of this is special revelation from heaven. We can see it with a microscope. Standard textbooks on embryology don’t establish “religion,” just common knowledge. Those that use the “religion” label to set aside plain truth are simultaneously attacking religion and science.

Someone at Health and Human Services wanted their Mission Statement to reflect the truth. Let’s hope that someday it will.

Jonathan Lange has a heart for our state and community. Locally, he has raised his family and served as pastor of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Evanston and St. Paul’s in Kemmerer for two decades. Statewide, he leads the Wyoming Pastors Network in advocating for the traditional church in the public square.


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