Church HistoryCulturePhilosophy

Homoousios and the Dignity of Children

In the days of the Nicean Council, during the Arian Christological controversy that rocked the early church, the absence of a single Greek letter made a great deal of difference. Per the formulation that later became the Nicene Creed, God the Father was understood to be of the same (homoousios) essence as God the Son, not merely similar (homoiousios). This doctrine continues to govern Christological thought today, and forms an essential component of a proper Trinitarian theology.

So, too, are all children made of the same fundamental essence as those who conceive them. This idea rests at the very heart of a pro-life ethic: all members of humankind (which is understood as a discrete and cognizable property possessed by all members of the species Homo sapiens sapiens) are equal in dignity and possess an equal claim to the right to life. If this continuity of essence – or, more simply, of kind of thing – does not exist, the philosophical pro-life case is no longer tenable.

Among many who claim to share a pro-life ethic, however, I have witnessed a disquieting recent tendency that cuts at the foundation of this message: namely, the tendency to criticize cultural practices by appending various descriptors to children conceived under (arguably) less-than-optimal circumstances. Two of these bear particular mention: the labels “anchor baby” (referring to children of immigrants, who receive American citizenship upon birth) and “test tube baby” (referring to children conceived through assisted reproductive technology).

At base, labels like this facilitate the hearer’s placing such children into a mental category of “difference” or “less-ness.” For instance, speaking of individuals as the product of “illegality” or “unnatural science” carries with it an implication for ontology: one who is conceived under such circumstances is not “fully human” in the same way that someone else is (the subtle connection between “naturalness” and “personhood” is reinforced by our language). I submit we are fundamentally less likely to cherish and defend the dignity of those we perceive (and rhetorically describe) as “not natural”: after all, things not of our essential human substance (e.g. other animals) do not possess those human rights for which we strive. It is far harder, if not altogether impossible, to make a claim for equal dignity of the unborn if one fails to stress equal dignity between all children – wholly irrespective of their birth circumstances.

Among critics of immigration policy or assisted reproductive technology, almost without exception, children conceived under other challenging circumstances are not described in the same pejorative way as those born to foreign parents on American soil or those conceived via in vitro fertilization. Virtually all persons would be justifiably appalled if any child were to be described as a “rape baby” or an “incest baby”: such descriptors cruelly stigmatize a child by evoking circumstances over which that child had no control.

Debates over the moral propriety of a given immigration policy or reproductive process are certainly vital, and nothing precludes labeling these policies or processes as “exploitative,” “potentially destructive,” or “morally unjustifiable.” To affix condemnatory labels to the children who arise from such circumstances, however, is to strongly imply that they are unlike us – we, who are not “anchor babies” or “test tube babies” but are legal and natural and thus of a higher kind. These labels confer a value judgment about the substance of the person conceived, even though process and person should theoretically be understood as separable. In short, the use of such terms is a statement that “the essential kind of thing here is fundamentally different: it has permanently been made such by the circumstances under which it came into being.”

As God the Father and God the Son are of the same substance – and not merely similar to one another (homoiousios) – so too are all children of the same substance as their progenitors. All persons are possessed of equal dignity, irrespective of how, why, or when they entered the world: that is the heart of a consistent pro-life ethic.

 Image courtesy of Attila Siha.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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