Stem Cells Revisited

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken September 12, 2004

Typically, I try not to repeat myself in these Windows on the World. Once I talk about something, I'm done talking about it. There are two main reasons for this. One is that there are so many things I haven't had a chance to talk about at all yet. The other is that once I've commented on something, I don't always have all that much more to say about it. But in this case, I feel I need to make an exception.

A couple years ago I argued that embryonic stem cell research is contrary to the will of God because inevitably it involves the destruction of a human being designed in the image of God. Recently several influential spokesmen have taken issue with that viewpoint, and they have done far more than simply disagree. In a nationally televised address given at the end of July, Ron Reagan said that embryonic stem cell research ought to enjoy the full financial support of the federal government. He bristled with indignation at the prospect that “the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.” The debate over stem cell research, he claimed, was a choice “between reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology” [Ron Reagan, Democratic National Convention, July 27, 2004]. In case you're wondering, Mr. Reagan was claiming to be on the side of reason and compassion, while those who oppose him are on the side of ignorance and ideology.

Similarly, TIME magazine's Michael Kinsley has argued that there is no reason for the controversy at all. If only people would “think it through,” he says, they would reach the only logical conclusion, namely, that embryonic stem cell research is moral necessity. Kinsley's column ended with a disingenuously polite request for people who oppose embryonic research—fanatics, he calls us—to “please get out of the way” [Michael Kinsley, “The False Controversy of Stem Cells,” Time (May 31, 2004), p. 88].

I, for one, am unwilling to get out of the way. Nor will I concede that my position is ignorant and illogical, although it is quite right to say that it is grounded in theology.

To refresh your memory, stem cells are generic cells that have the capacity to differentiate into specific kinds of cells like skin cells, muscle cells, and so on. Embryonic stem cells are taken from fertilized eggs that are only 5 or 6 days old. Typically they are taken from fertility clinics, where unwanted embryos are kept in frozen storage. Or they are extracted from new embryos cloned for the explicit purpose of medical research. But in either case—and Mr. Reagan was careful not to mention this—the embryo is destroyed in the process of harvesting its cells. This is the moral issue: not the stem cells themselves (it is morally defensible to conduct some research using stem cells that come from umbilical cords or adult bone marrow), but the human embryos from which they come.

The argument in favor of this kind of research is that it may lead to cures for debilitating diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. However, claims about the results of future research are only speculation, and they are often exaggerated, especially when scientists are playing politics or lobbying for funding [for documentation, see the open letter from the Christian Medical and Dental Association to the United States Congress, July 30, 2004]. But as Ronald McKay frankly admitted to the Washington Post, speaking from his position as a stem cell researcher for the National Institutes of Health, “People need a fairy tale” [quoted by Charles Krauthammer in “Why Lines Must Be Drawn,” Time (August 23, 2004), p. 78].

The real issue, however, is not what stem-cell research may or may not accomplish, but whether its methods respect the dignity of human persons. Advocates of such research claim that embryos are not persons at all; as anyone with any intelligence can see, they are only microscopic collections of cells. On the contrary, no one can rightly deny that an embryo is a human being. It is a being—a living thing—and the being of its existence is human. What else could it be? A human embryo may only look like a collection of cells, but in truth they look exactly like any person looks at that stage. Human embryos are nothing other than human beings at the germinal stage of their development. This is not a matter of theology at all, but of science.

The theology comes in when we go on to say that every human being—even at the embryonic stage—bears the dignity of its Creator. The biblical view of the person goes back before childbirth to conception. For example, King David dated his own personal identity from the time that he was conceived (Ps. 51:5), when God knit him together in his mother's womb (Ps. 139:13). This perspective reminds us not to get confused by the language people use when they are trying to claim that some persons are more valuable than others. An embryo, a fetus, an infant, an adolescent, and an adult human being do not differ in kind, but in size and maturity.

The consistently pro-life ethic of the Bible demands our respect for human life in all its forms. In the words of a recent report by the President's Council on Bioethics, it is a “basic moral principle that every human life deserves equal respect” [Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics (New York: Public Affairs, 2002]. To discard human embryos—or worse, to manufacture them only to destroy them—is to fail to show proper reverence for human life, which has its own dignity and thus demands our protection.

We should also be wary of the ever-present danger of using wrong means to achieve good ends. Of course we should do everything we can to research possible cures for deadly and debilitating diseases. But we must not misuse human life in the process. Like any other human being, an embryo should be treated as an end in itself, and not dehumanized as a means to an end, however desirable.

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