It is time to reopen Window on the World, our weekly opportunity to look at the world from God’s point of view, examining contemporary issues through the clear lens of biblical teaching. Usually I spend September catching up on what happened over the summer, and this year is no exception.
During the past several months, one of the most compelling news stories has been the ongoing debate over stem cell research. First, a few definitions: Stem cells are generic cells that have the capacity to turn into any specific type of tissue. Stem cells specialize to become skin cells, muscle cells, nerve cells, or any of 220 other cell types in the human body. Their purpose is to repair or replace cells that have been damaged or destroyed.
Embryonic stem cells are taken from fertilized eggs 5 or 6 days old. There are several ways to obtain them. One is to take them from fertility clinics, where thousands of unwanted embryos are stored in freezers, the product of in-vitro fertilization. Another is to extract clusters of cells from embryos made for the explicit purpose of medical research. Either way, the embryo is disassembled and destroyed in the process.
Stem cells have been in the news this summer because the U. S. government has been trying to establish its policies for this rapidly emerging area of scientific research. At the end of July, the House of Representatives voted to ban the use of cloning to produce embryonic stem cells. In the words of Tom DeLay of Texas, “Human beings should not be cloned to stock a medical junkyard of spare parts for medical experimentation.”
President Bush issued a major statement on the issue in August. The question facing him was whether or not the federal government should provide funding for stem cell research. Scientists in favor of such funding argue that this promising new area of medicine will combat degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS. Others say that manufacturing embryos in order to destroy them is simply murder in the name of medicine. In the end, Mr. Bush cut the Gordian knot by allowing federally funded research (private research remains unaffected), but only on lines of stem cells already in existence. This would prevent any more embryos from being destroyed.
My purpose is not to pass judgment on the President’s decision, but to reflect on the ethics of stem cell research. The Bible is consistently pro-life. Life is a gift from God, and therefore it is not to be destroyed carelessly. This is true for any form of life, but especially for human life because we are made in God’s image. This principle is so fundamental that I often refer to it in my Windows on the World. God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26a). Human beings are stamped with the very likeness of God. This gives us a special dignity and therefore deserves our special protection.
The question is, When does human life begin? TIME magazine’s Michael Kinsley argues that the embryos used for stem cell research “are not fetuses with tiny, waving hands and feet. These are microscopic groupings of a few differentiated cells. There is nothing human about them” [June 25, 2001, p. 80]. But to me there is little doubt that an embryo is a human being. What else could it be? It must be human, because it is the genetic product of two other humans. It is also a being-a living thing capable of growing and developing… or dying. As the Ramsey Colloquium wrote in 1995, “Any being that is human is a human being.”
Some ethicists quibble over the word “person.” “Is an embryo really a person,” they ask, or does it merely have the potential to become a person?” Well, it all depends how one defines “person.” Ethicists who think this way generally have difficulty explaining when a potential person becomes an actual person. What is certain is that an embryo is a human being. Indeed, it looks exactly like any other human being-including any one of us-at that stage of its development.
While no Bible verse states precisely when God puts his image in a person, the Bible clearly indicates that God’s life-giving work goes back at least as far as conception. An important verse comes from Psalm 51, where David writes, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). David is talking primarily about his sinful nature. First he says that he was sinful from birth, but then he realizes that he is not going back far enough; he was a sinner from his very conception! There are other important verses as well. In Psalm 139, David says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13b). The prophet Jeremiah dated God’s claim on his life back before he was in utero (Jer. 1:5). Although these biblical writers were not familiar with the intricacies of stem cell research, they insisted on direct divine involvement from the very earliest stages of life.
Once we understand this, it becomes apparent why embryonic stem cell research is immoral: It inevitably involves the destruction of a human being designed to be in the image of God. In this respect, I believe President Bush was right not to support the destruction of any additional embryos. However, the existing lines of stem cells-on which research will be permitted and funded-were themselves created by the same deadly process that the new policy denounces. This would seem to place future research done on them under a cloud of moral suspicion, not unlike the one that still surrounds data gathered from the Tuskegee study that allowed African-Americans to die from syphilis, or Mengele’s experiments at Auschwitz. Furthermore, allowing even this limited use of stem cells will inevitably open the door for wider exploitation as more and more medical possibilities develop.
This brings me to another reason why Christians should oppose embryonic stem cell research: It treats human beings as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Advocates of stem cell research invariably point out that such research may be useful in combating Parkinson’s and other dreadful diseases. Even if this has not yet been proven, it is a worthy goal, and scientists should pursue any legitimate means to reduce human suffering. However, the worthiness of a goal does not aside moral questions about how it is achieved. What is wrong to do is always wrong to do, even if it is done for the right reasons. To take a human embryo-which God has designed to be a person in its own right-and to use it for the purpose of medical research is to misuse it.
The question of means is especially relevant for stem cells because there is another way to get them. Stem cells can also be taken from living adults. Adult stem cells are not as versatile as embryonic stem cells (they cannot develop into every kind of cell, but only differentiate within the narrower limits of a cell type). However, the advantage is obvious: They can be collected without dehumanizing human beings by treating them like commodities, or even worse, killing them.
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