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The Stem Cell Question

This week, President Obama rescinded an executive order that prohibited the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Though this move is the fulfillment of a campaign promise (and shouldn’t surprise us), it is very disturbing for those who are advocates of life. The fundamental impediment to our acceptance of embryonic stem cell research has to do with destruction of the human embryo.

Thankfully, President Obama said he opposed human “cloning,” which would be the creation of human embryos solely for the production of stem cells, rather than with the intention of creating a new human being.

Advocates of life believe that life begins at conception, and since an embryo uninterrupted by death grows into a baby—it is a life. Ethically, any life is inherently valuable and should never be voluntarily destroyed. It is hard to justify the taking of a life in order to extend or improve someone else’s. It seems like cannibalism on some level. And without the protection of the basic right to stay alive, aren’t all other human rights sort of arbitrary?

On the other hand, supporters of stem cell research say it will open up a broad front of research to find better treatments for ailments like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other serious illnesses. These supporters claim they are being “pro-life” by acting on the moral imperative to alleviate suffering. They are also quick to point out the embryos used for this research are the unused embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise have simply been thrown away.

As you listen to both sides of the debate, it becomes obvious this issue is more complex than it first appears. And there’s some inconsistent logic. Consider, for example, that though the pro-life movement regards all embryos as human persons, pro-life leaders seem mainly concerned about the relatively few embryos that are killed by having their stem cells extracted. There seems to be little or no concern over the many hundreds of thousands of embryos which have been terminated or which will eventually die in in-vitro fertilization clinics.

If we are against the use of stem cell research on the basis of embryonic destruction, shouldn’t we also be against in-vitro fertilization clinics because there are always excess embryos that get discarded?

But how can those of us who love life fight against in-vitro fertilization clinics when those clinics give infertile couples (and those who have great difficulty getting pregnant) the joy of being able to have children? Shouldn’t we celebrate that?

As you can see, conversations about medical ethics can get complex and circuitous very quickly (like many socio-political issues do)—which is precisely the point that most of us miss. We oversimplify issues; we stand on soapboxes; we scream and yell at those who disagree with us (all in the name of God, of course).

Before you scream too loudly over this move by President Obama,  keep in mind that the prohibition for using federal funds under the executive order by President Bush did not stop the practice of harvesting stem cells from unused embryos in fertility clinics. Even President Bush, who disagreed with this ethically, did not try to stop the research completely. Why? It’s a complex issue.

Think about it. You may be (as I am) against destroying embryos to use for stem cell research, but I bet you are delighted for the couples who get to have children as a result of in-vitro fertilization clinics.

You may not be for stem cell research, but what if there was a treatment that utilized stem cells (that would have been tossed away) that would curb a crippling disease tormenting your child or loved one? Wouldn’t you wonder if that wasn’t a good use of what would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage?

Perhaps you scream “NO!”—but can you understand why others might struggle here?

The good news is there is new research that may make this whole discussion moot. According to Science Daily, Dr. Nagy, senior investigator at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, there is a “new method of generating stem cells that does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues such as a patient's own skin cells.”

As Christians wrestle through issues like this in the 21st century, we need to remember these kinds of developments are not addressed explicitly in Scripture—there are only general parameters to ponder, wonder about, pray over and wrestle through. The problem is many of us try to make these issues black-and-white simple when they often are not. They are filled with complexity. But complexity is too colorful for some of us, and we prefer doling out black-and-white conclusions.

Remember the movie Pleasantville? In the universe of Pleasantville (filmed in black and white instead of color), life was ... pleasant. Nothing akin to the horrors of war, famine or AIDS existed there. The bathrooms didn’t even have toilets—that would have been impolite. The high-school basketball team never missed a shot, firemen only rescued cats stuck in trees (there were no house fires), families were perfect and teen sweethearts never went past “first base.” Everything, absolutely everything, was perfect in that idyllic little town.

Some people try to make every issue like Pleasantville—simple and clear, with some added Bible verses blazing (along with chapter and verse) to back up our opinions. We tell people what to think and what to believe. Telling people what seems so much simpler than telling them why. And safer, too.

Thinking, cognizing, conceptualizing, perceiving, understanding, comprehending and cogitating—all are words for actions that are much more complex than simply commanding and directing. Demanding that people think a certain way in order to belong is so clean, so black-and-white simple. Helping them internalize the why behind a position and letting them participate in a discussion on conclusions is both cumbersome and potentially dangerous—they may conclude something different than what we think. God forbid.

Certainly we can tell others at the water cooler and in our churches what we believe about issues like this, but it’s important that we talk and listen and trust God to help us wrestle through the seeming contradictory pros and cons involved. The truth never changes, but how it is applied within the context of the 21st century needs careful consideration. But “careful consideration” demands more trust in both God and His people. That will mean we need to be tolerant, patient and open to diversity and difference of opinion—open to color.

64 Comments

Efe

17

Efe commented…

I think Ed is still saying what he's been trying to say all along.
While we can be unwavering is what we believe is right or wrong, we cannot dismiss the fact that "issues" can be extremely complex when you start to get down into the grit of our everyday circumstances, and I soooooo agree with Bibledude: Many Many times, in our zeal to "be right" we lose sight of compassion.
Until you struggle with infertility you cannot understand what its like, and if you've not been there how can you state with certainty that for any couple its not God's will (He did bless us: Be fruitful and multiply)but we know the world is fallen and broken and God's whole salvation work is fixing everything broken in His world starting with our relationships with Him and then with one another and our lives as a whole.

Until you experience sickness so debilitating you cannot possibly know what it means to pray and believe and hope for a cure.

While I will always stand to protect the rights of the unborn, I pray God will help me do so in humility and hopefully in way that people see Christ and not just my political position

Jenn Hoogendoorn

1

Jenn Hoogendoorn replied to Efe's comment

I realize it's many years later from the origin of this post. But I did a search to see what has been said and this is the most relevant within this database. Why is a whole other issue.... as someone who's faced with a decision to receive IFV I really want to play the devils advocate. My husband and I were both uncomfortable with IVF, we said if this didn't happen then it wouldn't happen and we'd have to re-evaluate what we thought God's plan was for us. Then as reality began to sink in, and we realized that adoption is not so easy of a "second option" (I'm being more and more convicted that adoption is a calling and not a result of infertility). We have actually considered IVF.
But it's hard to discern which conviction is true. Before, when we could look objectively, or in the middle, when we are swayed by emotions and perhaps guilty of "rationalizing".

Ed Gungor

72

Ed Gungor commented…

I'd like to throw out another aspect of this discussion that I really do not understand (and I hope I'm not castigated too harshly if there is some obvious point I am missing here...I'm certainly not a scientist).

Isn't there a difference between an embryo that is 1-3 days old (which is the typical age of embryos used in in-vitro fertilization) and older embryos? For example...the 1-3 day embryos used in this process are often frozen. Then they are thawed and are still alive and can be successfully impanted! Obviously there is a point at which the embryo cannot be frozen and thawed...that process alone would kill it.

Am I being a moron here or is there something to be said about the "kind of life" we are dealing with here at such an early stage? Is this potential human life or fully human life? If it is fully human, then why can't we freeze any fully human life and it survive?

The only argument that the embryo is fully human (that I have encountered and currently hold to myself) is that an embryo "uninterrupted" leads to a fully developed human being--thus it is life.

But if I'm honest, I can see how someone taking that hard position could say, "A sperm and egg are alive too, and if they are 'uninterrupted' from connecting (via intercourse), they will lead to a fully developed human life--THUS, all birth control is a kind of murder."

There are many Christians who take that position. And there is a story in Genesis that would support this view: "[Onan] spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORDs sight; so he put him to death also" (Gen. 38:9-10).

I am only bringing this up to show another level of complexity...not to prove the issue either way.

Again...though I have a "belief" about this...I'm having a hard time being black and white about it...the issue just doesn't seem black and white simple to me.

Ed Gungor

72

Ed Gungor commented…

I'd like to throw out another aspect of this discussion that I really do not understand (and I hope I'm not castigated too harshly if there is some obvious point I am missing here...I'm certainly not a scientist).

Isn't there a difference between an embryo that is 1-3 days old (which is the typical age of embryos used in in-vitro fertilization) and older embryos? For example...the 1-3 day embryos used in this process are often frozen. Then they are thawed and are still alive and can be successfully impanted! Obviously there is a point at which the embryo cannot be frozen and thawed...that process alone would kill it.

Am I being a moron here or is there something to be said about the "kind of life" we are dealing with here at such an early stage? Is this potential human life or fully human life? If it is fully human, then why can't we freeze any fully human life and it survive?

The only argument that the embryo is fully human (that I have encountered and currently hold to myself) is that an embryo "uninterrupted" leads to a fully developed human being--thus it is life.

But if I'm honest, I can see how someone taking that hard position could say, "A sperm and egg are alive too, and if they are 'uninterrupted' from connecting (via intercourse), they will lead to a fully developed human life--THUS, all birth control is a kind of murder."

There are many Christians who take that position. And there is a story in Genesis that would support this view: "[Onan] spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the LORDs sight; so he put him to death also" (Gen. 38:9-10).

I am only bringing this up to show another level of complexity...not to prove the issue either way.

Again...though I have a "belief" about this...I'm having a hard time being black and white about it...the issue just doesn't seem black and white simple to me.

85,170

potatoes commented…

Okay, first off I admit to know limited amounts about stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and the processes involved in both. I'm also not very good at citing Bible verses etc (I'm new to the whole somewhat devoted Christian thing, ;) )
Here's some points being raised that I don't quite understand though.
- Someone mentioned how they don't support the use of discarded embryos for stem cell research because they believe this would lead to more discarded embryos. Can't the adoption of embryos lead towards the same thing? Yes these embryos will find a new life/home but the option for adoption won't stop people from having many eggs implanted for in-vitro (the unused embryos will just be adopted being the logic behind this choice). I mean the adoption of live babies hasn't correlated to an decreased amount of unwanted pregnancies.

- If you/we/whomever doesn't support stem cell research because they do not support the destruction of life, where do you draw the line on what life you can destroy, because something must die for you to live (sorry, run-on sentence). How does the destruction of life in wars fit into this? Is the reasoning behind say, the Vietnam War, different from that of the American Revolution? What about the death penalty? Is destroying Saddam Hussein's life any better/worse than killing a baby? What about destroying life through inaction such as not calling 911 for a car on the side of the road or helping someone through a drug addiction or working to stop genocide in east Africa? Where does the destruction become rationalized into something good.
What about animal testing? Or euthanasia at animal control/the pound? Or eating meat? Or killing a spider in the tub? Do these creatures of God contain the same right to life?
If all living things have the right to life then what about the eating of fruits and vegetables? Or the cutting of flowers to give as a bouquet, that is an action that isn't necessary to human survival? Polluting the environment? What about using anti-bacterial soap? Unicellular organisms are still living creatures.

There are just so many questions and so few answers. I know many people, friends, and relatives who have diseases that could be cured or greatly advanced through stem cell research. I find it hard to think about not wanting to find a way for them to be cured.

85,170

Dylan commented…

What if God created the control in order to test us? Doesn't the entire Christian faith revolve around the concept of free will? This isn't the Garden of Eden anymore...just sayin'

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