October 2004 – My maternal grandmother died two years ago at age 99. She was a tiny woman who stood only four feet, seven inches tall and wore a size two shoe. But her love for Christ and His Word made her a spiritual giant in the eyes of family and friends.
For over five decades she spent untold hours each week preparing to teach her beloved women’s Bible class that now bears her name.
But that was before Alzheimer’s disease robbed Nannie of her mental faculties. Helplessly our family watched as the memories we shared faded, and the spunky personality we loved became confused and anxious. Finally, through tears, my mom and dad came to realize they could no longer care for her at home. We still lament over how an intelligent, vital human being could become so tragically lost.
So when politicians, scientists and entertainers tout embryonic stem cells as an almost magical cure for Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes and other such debilitating conditions, we remember Nannie. Like millions of families, we want to support medical research that might lead to cures that would spare others such sadness.
But at what cost? For Christians who believe that human life in any form is sacred, the promise of these new cures and therapies raises difficult questions about stem cell research. Coming to an informed position that reflects the mind of Christ requires thoughtful consideration of the terms, the politics and the theology of the debate.
The terms of the debate
Human stem cells are the “master cells of the body,” and have the ability to grow into other specialized types of cells, according to the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA).
The value of stem cells in medical treatments is the hope that they can be used to replace diseased cells with healthy ones. For example, in a treatment that is done over 15,000 times a year in the U.S. alone, stem cells replace a patient’s bone marrow after high doses of chemotherapy or radiation. Scientists hope that research will lead to cures in which stem cells would replace cells damaged by diabetes, Parkinson, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and a host of other conditions.
Stem cells found in human embryos can divide and change into all of the 210 cell types in the human body. These types of stem cells are called embryonic stem cells. (An embryo is a human being at the stage from fertilization to about eight days.)
The primary sources of embryonic stem cells for research are the extra embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF), a method of assisted reproduction in which the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg are combined in a laboratory dish and fertilization occurs. The resulting embryo is then transferred to the uterus to develop naturally. Often in IVF, extra embryos are frozen and saved for later, much less expensive future pregnancies. However, thousands of these frozen embryos go unused and are available for research or discarded.
Cells harvested from these seven- to ten-day-old embryos can develop into any type of body tissue cell, but cannot become an entire human.
The ovaries and testes of aborted fetuses are another source of embryonic stem cells.
But animal experiments have shown that the use of embryonic stem cells in reparative therapies is a troublesome proposition. Since the genetic makeup of a patient is different to that of a donor, the patient’s immune system rejects the implanted cells. The solution is to produce a genetically identical embryo by fusing a cell from the patient with a donated egg. After a few days of development, the inner cell mass is harvested for its stem cells. The embryo is destroyed in the process. Simply put, a patient sacrifices his embryonic twin to cure his own illness.
“The embryonic clone would be the patient’s genetic twin displaced in time,” explains Dr. David Stevens, CMDA director. “It would be a human being because it has the chromosomes of a human perfectly formed for that stage of development. At that point in time, the embryo is self-directed and, if left in the proper environment, it will continue development through gestation, birth, maturity and eventually natural death, just like all humans.”
Adult stem cells are non-embryonic cells found in many parts of the body including bone marrow, lungs, pancreas, brain, skin and even fat. For over 20 years, adult stem cells have been used in treatments for cancer and auto-immune diseases. Until recently scientists have thought these cells could not differentiate into other kinds of specialized cells. A brain cell could not become a heart cell, for example. However, scientists are now finding that some adult stem cells can turn into other types of tissues. In the public debate, stem cells found in umbilical cord and placenta stem cells are also commonly considered adult stem cells.
The politics of the debate
Since the use of embryonic stem cells necessitates the destruction of the human embryo, the controversy raised by stem cell research is the same as in the abortion debate. The fundamental moral question is whether the early embryo is a human life.
Particularly troubling for pro-life advocates is the fact that so far there have been no successful therapies developed using embryonic stem cells in humans. In addition “the most recent studies in animals have shown embryonic stem cells to be unstable and unpredictable,” according to CMDA (www.cmda.org).
Nigel M. de S. Cameron, dean of the Wilberforce Forum and a member of The Council of Biotechnology Policy, writes that animal experiments using embryonic stem cells “have yielded very little evidence of cures and many problems.” Cameron and other pro-life experts agree that even if research on embryonic stem cells begins to show promise, useful therapies are many years down the road.
However, “adult stem cell research holds as much, if not more, promise as embryonic stem cell research, and we are likely to get to our therapeutic goals more quickly if the federal government puts its funding into this area,” Stevens says.
Treatments using non-embryonic stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood, bone marrow, brain tissue and fat are proving successful now. Personal testimonies of treatment successes given before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space are posted at www.stemcellresearch.org, the Web site of Do No Harm, an organization that describes itself as a “coalition of Americans for research ethics.”
So, if the most promising stem cell therapies use cells that can be harvested without doing harm to a human embryo, why are some scientific experts strongly promoting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research? And why, in the words of bioethicist Wesley Smith, does the mainstream media give stories about embryonic stem cell research “the brass band treatment” while reports about adult stem cells are “generally about as intense and excited as a stifled yawn”?
According to a National Journal article titled “Mixing Business with Stem Cells” by Neil Munro, there is a simple answer: money. Munro writes “…the media coverage has often missed the pecuniary interests of the scientists who have been prominent in supporting government funding for research into the use of stem cells from human embryos.” In other words, the press has largely ignored instances in which those promoting embryonic stem cell research – including prominent scientists and faculty members at prestigious universities and public research institutions – have personal stakes in private biotech companies that would benefit directly or indirectly from federal funding.
Ideologues and victims
The lack of biotech investors in embryonic stem cell enterprises also suggests that useful therapies may be far into the future. “Private investors avoid them because they don’t want to wait perhaps 10 years for commercial products that very well may not materialize and because they’re spooked by the ethical concerns,” writes Michael Fumento in Insight magazine. “That leaves essentially only Uncle Sam’s piggy bank, primarily grants from the National Institutes of Health, to keep these labs open.”
Stevens says there are at least two other reasons why “a key core group of scientists” is promoting embryonic stem cell research. One is that the process of using adult stem cells is medically simple and cannot be patented. So, there is no significant money to be made with the research.
“What most people don’t understand is that medical school and institutional research has changed tremendously in the past 20 years,” Stevens said. “We used to think of researchers working purely to help people, but that’s not the way medical schools attract their top scientists. Now they tell the scientists up front that they will not get large salaries that the biotech companies offer. But, if the scientist finds something that is marketable, then the medical school or institutional research firm will spin off a for-profit company and the scientist will get half the profits.”
A second disturbing reason, according to Stevens, why some scientists are promoting the use of embryonic stem cells in research for regenerative therapies, is that it would open the door for experimentation on human beings in other areas. “They could study the effects of new drugs on humans, for example, without having to go through clinical trials or a review committee,” he says. “They would have the ability to sacrifice human beings for any research purpose.”
As for the media pattern of over-reporting embryonic stem cell news and under-reporting adult stem cell news, Fumento says that reporters “…take their cues from the professional medical journals. And, unfortunately, these are among the leaders in the war against adult stem cells.”
“To the professional journals this is an issue of scientific freedom.” Stevens says. “They see the tremendous knowledge that can be gained through experimenting on humans and they want to see it happen.”
As for celebrities like Christopher Reeve, a victim of a spinal cord injury, and Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, Stevens says they are victims of disinformation and news bias. “If there is anything in the news about embryonic stem cells, it will be on the front page of The New York Times. If the news is about adult stem cells, you’re going to have to dig it out of the original medical journals.”
The theology of the debate
For Christians, the moral debate over the use of embryonic stem cells hinges on the question: When does life begin, according to the Creator? In the context of the stem cell debate that question might be restated: Does God see the early embryo as a human being made in His image?
But in addition, the issue raises more complex quandaries concerning the morality of IVF, cloning and the place of suffering in the believer’s life.
In a recent article in Christianity Today, Amy Laura Hall, United Methodist minister and assistant professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, warned that in the face of medical advances, evangelicals can be tempted to soften their position on the sanctity of life. “For years, evangelical leaders have been clear on the question of life and personhood beginning at conception,” she said. “Now we have found a use for embryos, with the possibility of healing ourselves and healing our children, we are tempted to rethink our position on prenatal life.”
CMDA literature asserts that even an objective look at the process of human development “will easily identify the beginnings of human life at the logically and biologically clear point of fertilization, when an individual’s genetic makeup is complete and unique. Establishing the start of human life at any later point along the seamless continuum of human development … is patently arbitrary and irrational.”
From a theological perspective, Barbara Quigley, executive director of the Bioethics Center of St. Louis, says that because God’s actions are sometimes beyond our understanding, Christians must avoid pragmatic “consequence-oriented reasoning alone.” In the context of the stem cell research debate that means even a noble end – relieving suffering – does not justify the means – the destroying of a human life.
In an article titled “Is the Church Ready for the Biotech Era?” Quigley said, “We must act on the basis of what we know in Christ to be right, and not act on the basis of simple human assessment of the (apparent) good to be produced.”
At a minimum what we can know about the sanctity of human life includes these four Scriptural principles:
1. Humans are made in God’s image. (Genesis 1:26-27)
2. We are not to unjustly take human life. (Deuteronomy 5:17)
3. God knew us as individuals in our mother’s womb and even before. (Psalm 139:15, 16)
4. Our Savior was once a single cell embryo. (Matthew 1:20)
With these in mind, what option do Christians have but to protect even the very youngest human members of His creation?