Dr. James Thomson, the discoverer of embryonic stem cells once said, “if human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.” Since last week, after President Obama reversed President Bush’s executive order banning the public funding of embryonic stem cell research, I am feeling a ton of discomfort. For starters, I am bothered that this causes no moral discomfort for our president and so many others. But I am also bothered by the situation that got us to this point, by the destruction of human embryos, and by where it all may lead.
It was in 1988 that scientists first reported that they had successfully isolated and cultured human embryonic stem cells. To get these kinds of cells, they had to use embryos in the earliest stages of development (usually from fertility clinics which had leftover embryos). The promise of using stem cells harvested from human embryos is that they may help cure diseases like Parkinsons, heart disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes. But the price of such break- throughs would be the use and destruction of human embryos.
Why is this a problem? First of all because it is not right. It is an unlawful taking of human life. When stem cells are obtained from living human embryos, they are taken by unethical means—the killing of human beings. Of course, I am speaking as a religious person—as a Christian. I appeal to the Bible first, and then to Christian tradition. If you ask when human life begins, most Christians respond that it begins at conception. Not only are we created in the image of God, we are referred to as persons in the womb (Exodus 21.22,23; Job 31.15; Psalm 139.13-16; Psalm 22.9-10; Psalm 51.5; Jeremiah 1.5; Luke 1.15; Galatians 1.15). These texts refer to human beings who are created, known and valued by God even before birth. Early Christian literature and councils also forbid abortion on these grounds (Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, etc; and the Councils of Elvira, Ancrya and Trullo). They argued for caring for the pre-born in a world where abortion, exposure and infanticide was legal and common. These texts and decisions inform my thinking and lead me to believe that abortion is wrong. And that’s why I believe some kinds (not all kinds) of stem cell research is wrong.
One of the complications of this debate has to do with a previous problem. The problem is not only embryonic stem cell research, but discarded embryos in fertility clinics. When IVF (in vitro fertilization) or test tube babies were first developed, it involved freezing extra embryos to ensure the availability of embryos for implantation. The focus was on treating infertility. The problem is that once a couple had a baby, or divorced, or changed their minds, they left an excess of unwanted embryos in freezers nationwide. What is to be done with them? It is tragic that this was allowed in the first place.
So what do we do with all of these leftover embryos in frozen orphanages all over the country. It is this complication which makes the embryonic stem cell debate complicated and puts some scientists in a muddle—even Christian scientists. Are they to be left in embryonic limbo, to be thrown out, or to be used? Who is responsible for their condition?
But let’s be clear, the primary issue is how we view these embryos. The follow up issue is what should be done with them. Are these embryos human beings?
A second problem with embryonic stem cell research is that, from what I am told, it is not necessary. Other forms of stem cell research have great promise—including induced pluripotent stem cell research and adult stem cell research. The previous administration
provided funding for these two forms but not for embryonic stem cell research because it involved destroying embryos.
However, it is in a third area that I am most discomforted. I am bothered by where all this may lead.
It seems to me that a line has been crossed—that we are wading in treacherous moral waters. The first shift took place when we began viewing the human embryo as a non-person. Now we are told to think of it as a medical product fit for dissection. We freeze it, we dissect it, we treat it as a commodity (a kind of body-part factory) and then we discard it.
So what’s next? Certainly things will not remain static. We will probably allow embryos to grow to a later stage in development. We will then harvest more grown parts for research and eventually for replacement.
Is this far-fetched? Even Charles Krauthammer, who is not a believer and supports embryonic stem cell research, recently wrote—“given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science, and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn.”
On top of all this, I worry about the consequences of science and medicine cutting its ties to transcendent moral norms. When we appeal to science instead of morality and when we elevate science over God, we are shaking our fist in the face of our creator.
As we cut our ties with our Judeo-Christian past, we are losing what it means to be human. There are many signs of this: legalized abortion, partial birth abortion, acceptable forms of infanticide, euthanasia, the merging of body and computer/machine, the post-human movement. All this portends that we could be slowly entering something like Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
In his classic book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis worried too. He warned of the day when we start viewing humans, not as individuals made in the image of God, but as mere commodities. He wrote, “If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by his dehumanized conditioners.”
Well, there is little I can do to reverse an executive order, let alone the mega trends of a culture running from God. But I can do something. I can preach. I can blog. I can speak out for the unlawful destruction of human life. And I can make us all feel “a little bit uncomfortable” as we ponder the events of last week.