Lawmakers and religious leaders in various countries around the world have been involved in a controversy over stem cell research because of the religious, moral and ethical issues it raises. Reports of this controversy have been appearing in newspapers, news magazines and professional/technical journals for several years. Stem cell research has the prospect of developing treatments for many presently untreatable diseases and injuries. In favor of doing this research are a large number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, university presidents, and even some pro-life conservatives.1 However, other pro-life leaders are strongly opposed on ethical and religious grounds. Individual decisions about the controversy should be made on the basis of facts and not only on the opinions of those we respect. This article, therefore, seeks to provide pertinent facts to help the reader develop an informed opinion.
What Is A Stem Cell?
A stem cell is one which can “differentiate” into any of the 220 cell types that make up the human body.1 Stem cells are present in very young embryos, called blastocysts, which form from the fertilized egg. They are also present in adults, scattered through the tissues of the body.1,2 Embryonic stem cells for research are harvested from the blastocyst3 and are then stopped from differentiating.
Potential Uses For Stem Cells
Stem cells have been converted into 110 different kinds of cells – heart, skin, etc.2 “With the right ‘coaxing’ these cells can theoretically be converted into an unlimited supply of tissue for transplant: new heart muscles for heart attack survivors; insulin secreting cells for diabetics; neurons for those suffering from spinal-cord injuries or the effects of Parkinson’s disease.” 1 Hence, the results of stem cell research have “the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine.” 4 Today, “tissue engineers dream of a future in which all kinds of organs and tissues can be custom-made to replace those ravaged by disease, injury, or a lifetime of hard use.” 1
Christians who believe that it will not be long until Christ establishes His millennial kingdom should note that Isaiah prophesied this about the kingdom: “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought to be a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed” (Isa. 65:20 NIV). In the past, scoffers have made fun of this prophecy. But could it be that some of the “advances” scientists foresee today as becoming available through the use of stem cells will bring us closer to understanding its fulfillment? If so, Christians should consider that there must be a moral, ethical way in which stem cells can be obtained and used.
Where Can Embryos Come From?
Christians need to know that the stem cell controversy is not about abortion. The embryos from which stem cells are obtained do not come from abortions. They come from in-vitro fertilization centers where embryos are produced in a test tube to be implanted into the womb of an infertile woman. Many more are produced than are normally used. These “embryos which would ultimately be discarded, are the source of embryonic stem cells.” 4
Embryos can also be produced by cloning.5,6 Christians should carefully distinguish between “therapeutic cloning” to obtain stem cells to treat disease, and “reproductive cloning” whose purpose is to produce a child. The latter is almost universally opposed.
Why Do Therapeutic Cloning?
The problem with using embryonic stem cells from fertilized eggs is that they are foreign tissue and, as such, “run the risk of being rejected by the immune system.” 1 However, stem cells obtained from an embryo produced by cloning which uses a patient’s own cell nucleus are “the patient’s own cells” and would not be expected to experience rejection.
Those opposed to therapeutic cloning see the blastocyst (embryo) produced by cloning as the equivalent of any ordinary embryo. Those in favor point out that, because a clone is not the result of fertilization of an egg by a sperm, this “activated egg” as they prefer to call it, is a “new type of biologic entity never before seen in nature.” 5
In support of therapeutic cloning, R. M. Greene, the director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, wrote that “the benefits of this research and the possible therapies it could produce far outweigh the claim of the activated egg.” 5 Also, outstanding scientists in the United States (NAS) have “reiterated support for therapeutic cloning.” 1 For Christians, however, the crucial question is not, “What is the opinion of the experts?” but, “Is the fertilized egg or the activated egg a person?”
Is An Embryo A Person?
People differ in their answers to this crucial question. Everyone agrees that human life begins at conception and that the fertilized egg develops into an embryo which eventually becomes the newborn baby. Some people, therefore, say that the embryo is a person, but others disagree.
Part of the problem lies in what people mean when they say “human life,” “person” or “human being.” Biologists point out that human life and a human being are not quite the same thing. For example, human body cells in cell cultures are human life, not animal life, but they are not persons. An embryo is human life but one embryo can become two persons, three persons, or more. Also, two embryos can even become one person!1 Then, does not this question still remain: “When exactly does a ‘person’ begin?”
Biologists think that there is a biological criterion. One of them says, “A human individual begins at primitive-streak formation. The ‘primitive streak’ appears after fourteen days of embryonic development. It’s like an arrow drawn on the embryo, one that delineates head and tail, front and back. Until then, how many individuals, if any, that tiny ball of tissue will produce is unclear … At that point … there is no brain, no sensation, no pain, no memory, nothing of that. But it is an individualized human in a very early stage, and I advocate that we don’t touch that. But before then … it is just cells.” Some pro-life Christians find this way of thinking persuasive; others do not.
Christians consider not only the biological but also the spiritual. We know that when a person who is a believer dies, the person, the soul-spirit is “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) even if the person’s “human life” (body) is being maintained by artificial means. There is a soul-spirit, but when did God introduce it? The answer is not as obvious as one might think. Suppose that the fertilized egg splits into two, three, or four embryos as it sometimes does; then identical twins, triplets or quadruplets result. When this happens, when do they become persons? Especially troublesome is the situation where two embryos fuse and produce one person. Does that person have two soul-spirits, one from each embryo? The New International Version marginal note for Ecclesiastes 11:5 speaks from a human viewpoint when it says: “You do not know … how life (or the spirit) enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb.” Indeed, there is much we do not know!
What’s A Christian To Do?
Since stem cell research is already taking place, why should Christians be concerned?
Because “cells tend to deteriorate with time in cell culture, new cell lines will have to be derived if research is to continue,” 8 and therefore, there will be efforts to change the present law which forbids deriving new cell lines. When changes are proposed, concerned Christians will desire to influence the outcome. Also, during the lifetime of the reader, therapies for currently untreatable diseases are likely to be developed and Christians can expect to have to decide whether to accept such therapies for themselves or their loved ones.
Decisions, or course, should always be made in the light of God’s Word, but Scripture does not always give the explicit answers we’d like. What then does Scripture tell us to do when it does not tell us what to do? Such a situation existed in Paul’s day. He advises us that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). We should not judge one another for the decision made, but should leave that to the Lord, for each of us will give an account to Him for our decisions. (Rom. 14:4,12-13).
Finally, although we may share our views, we should not argue about them (2 Tim. 2:24). Paul advises us not to argue saying, “Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (Rom. 14:22).
1. Atlantic, (Jun. ’02), p. 31.
2. Newsweek, Special Issue, (Fall/Winter ’01), p. 84.
3. Scientific American, (Jan. ’02), p. 45. After four days, a fertilized egg has become a hollow ball about the size of a grain of sand. It consists of a mass of stem cells and an outer ring of cells that eventually become the placenta. The stem cells differentiate into the 220 cell types that make up the human baby. The placenta is human life but it is not a person.
4. Newsweek, (Jul. 9, ’01), p. 22.
5. Scientific American, (Jan. ’02), p. 45.
6. Scientific American, (Jan. ’02), p. 45. In the cloning process, the nucleus of a mature egg is removed, the nucleus of an adult body cell is then put in its place, and the resulting egg is induced to divide and grow into a blastocyst, that is, into an embryo.
7. Harper’s Magazine, (Nov. ’01), p. 44. There is a human cell culture labeled “HeLa” consisting of cells descended from cells isolated long ago from the body of Henrietta Lacks. She died years ago but the human life and all the genetic information that specified her biologically continues to function.
8. Atlantic, (Jun. ’02), p. 54.
By Alan Crosby
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org