Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stem cell research

Arizona Snow - March, 2007

What does embryonic stem cell research have to do with me?

What is moral? What’s immoral? What’s amoral?

I remember a discussion in church a long time ago on the subject of sin. Specifically, it questioned why we never hear the word anymore and whether or not we’ve written the concept of sin out of our theology—or at least out of our dialogue about our theology.

Interesting word, sin. Oxford says it’s “the breaking of divine or moral law, esp. by a conscious act.”

“The soul that sinneth, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:4),” says the prophet Ezekiel. “But he that sinneth against me [the LORD] wrongeth his own soul (Proverbs 8:36.).” (References to KJV)

This is serious stuff.

It may have been in the backs of our minds the other day as we talked over lunch about President Obama’s move to end the restriction on embryonic stem cell research. On the one hand, such research may open the door for shysters to make a business of harvesting embryos (human offspring in the first eight or twelve weeks from conception – Oxford) like a cash crop. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells (undifferentiated cell[s] from which specialized cells develop – Oxford) offer hope for cures for debilitating diseases: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to name two. As I understand it, stem cells exist in everyone’s body in small amounts, can be found in umbilical blood and can be retrieved from aborted or miscarried embryos. But like the work of Einstein led to the creation of the nuclear bomb, this scientific development has potential for massive misuse.

So is it immoral (sinful) to research embryonic stem cell harvesting? Although a broad moral code regarding the sanctity of life could be applied here, we lack a specific “moral law” that could be applied. I assume it would be clearly immoral to kill a person in order to harvest his organs for sale, and so it would likely be clear as well if we deliberately destroyed a developing embryo for the sale of its stem cells. We have already settled the question of utilizing organs of consenting, deceased persons. We accept it as a moral act. A fetus that is miscarried, by this token, would be an eligible donor of stem cells. Probably not so if human embryos are cultured in a Petri dish solely for their stem cells, or if a person needing stem cells pays for a woman’s abortion in order to get them.

Are those who research the application of stem cells to medicine “breaking [a] divine or moral law, esp. by a conscious act?” I don’t believe so; they are more likely following the natural course of genetic research in the hope of finding cures for illnesses.

I support science’s search for knowledge, even when it leads into areas of discomfort. At the same time, since the people through their governments are ultimately responsible for deciding where the borders between immorality, morality and amorality lie with regard to embryonic stem cells, it is the people through the processes of democracy who must enunciate the moral code on this subject. Governments must find a way to lay the relevant information and a proper question before them.

Or, the point may end up being moot. There is, apparently, a promising line of research that “is developing techniques to convert skin cells into Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells) that emulate embryonic stem cells ( If this technique proves to be efficacious, there may be no need to visit the question of the embryo as a human life for this issue. We will, however, still experience the raging debate over the humanness of an embryo as regards abortion.

So is all this about sin? I don’t see people consciously breaking divine or moral codes in their search for ethical answers regarding the treatment of human embryos. Mind you, a lot could be happening out of my sight.

Healing people’s diseases is definitely a moral undertaking; that’s clear—philosophically and theologically. The principle of revering human life is implicit in the healing arts; it must also be implicit in the search for new cures.

copyright, g.epp, 2009

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