Embryonic stem cell research: profanity or panacea? 

Why is Embryonic stem cell research in the news? Because it promises breakthroughs in the fight against disease. With continuing research, treatment and cures for many diseases may be realized. Diseases benefiting from this research include: Parkinson’s disease, cystic fibrosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Huntington’s, muscular dystrophy, AIDS, Down Syndrome, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, hepatitis, diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, lupus, some forms of cancer, glaucoma, blindness, stroke, osteoarthritis, brain damage, severe burns, bone loss and broken bones.

If it’s so promising, why the debate? Because human embryos are destroyed when removing stem cells. Since conservative Christians believe life begins at conception, they equate destroying human embryos with murder. The principal and most influential proponent of this view is the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, it took the church nearly 2,000 years to reach this conclusion. It wasn’t until 132 years ago that Pope Pius IX wrote Apostolicae Sedis. It was in this document of 1869 that abortion at any stage of pregnancy was defined as homicide for the first time. The idea that ‘human life begins at conception’ was not accepted before this date. Also, it was not taught by Jesus Christ, does not appear in the Bible, and is not believed by many, if not most, Catholics. So, it is not surprising the Roman Catholic Church, until today, has not included this teaching in its collection of infallible doctrine.

Another problem with the ‘human life begins at conception’ idea is the fact that approximately 50% of embryos are destroyed by spontaneous abortions (very early miscarriages). Usually the women don’t even know they’re pregnant. The embryo dies and is discharged from the woman’s body. If these embryos are ‘human beings,’ wouldn’t that make God the greatest abortionist and murderer of all? Could it be God doesn’t consider an embryo a human being?

Opponents emotionally refer to embryonic stem cells as embryos and humans. For example, while speaking on this subject last month (June 2001), Colleen Parro, spokesperson for the Republican National Coalition for Life said, “We do not believe that human beings should ever be sacrificed for the benefit of another. We thought we left that at Nuremberg more than fifty years ago.” For better understanding, it may be useful to dispense with emotion and the use of emotionally charged words.

Let’s begin our commonsense approach by discovering what an embryonic stem cell is and is not. Is it living material? Yes, but so was the ovum and sperm before they combined. Once the ovum is fertilized, it is an embryo. By embryo, I don’t mean an identifiable living organism (fetus), but a single cell. About three days later, it reaches blastocyst stage. It has an outer and inner layer. The outer layer is what becomes the placenta in a developing fetus. The inner cell divides into duplicate cells. In the early stages these cells are pluripotent. That is, they are yet undefined and have the potential to change into any of the 220 different cell types that make up the human body.

In embryonic stem cell research, the inner layer of hPSCs (human pluripotent stem cells) is removed. Of course, this results in destroying the embryo. At this stage the ‘embryo’ has between 100 and 300 cells. It doesn’t have any organs, senses, or awareness. It isn’t a fetus, but a collection of cells with the potential to evolve slowly into all the organs which make a human. At this stage, we cannot call the blastocyst a person, such as ‘Johnny.’ Why not? Because within two weeks, everything may divide again, making twins! So, what I thought was potentially ‘Johnny,’ is now ‘Johnny and Mary!’ Isn’t that proof enough the blastocyst isn’t a person?

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is a respected member of the U.S. Congress. He is known for placing ethics above partisan politics. A practicing Mormon and against abortion, he nevertheless favors embryonic stem cell research. On NBC’s Meet the Press he said, “I just cannot equate a child living in the womb, with moving toes and fingers and a beating heart, with a frozen embryo sitting in a lab somewhere.” Is his voice possibly the voice of reason?

Writing in the June 1, 2001 issue of Science, Louis M. Guenin, who teaches ethics at Harvard Medical School, states, “It is virtuous to eliminate suffering in actual lives when we may do so at no cost in potential lives.” He calls the embryos used in stem cell research ‘epidosembryos,’ after the Greek epidosis, which means, ‘a benefit for the common good.’ The embryos used in research come from the 100,000, or so, extra frozen embryos that were developed to help infertile couples. Addressing this issue, Dr. Guenin writes in the same article, “nothing can be gained for an epidosembryo by arranging that it perish as waste rather than perish in aid of others.”

Again, the Editors of Scientific American magazine write, “No one should too readily dismiss the objections that using embryos in this way is an insult to human dignity. But these were embryos already abandoned by their parents as by-products of other conception attempts. Currently these embryos have exactly zero chance of ever maturing into human beings. Stem cell research offers the cells more opportunity for life than they would otherwise see. It offers many afflicted people an opportunity for healthier, longer lives. Saving embryonic stem cell research may not be an easy choice, but it is the right and moral one.”

Should the scientific community engage in embryonic stem cell research? Guess what? I’m not trying to persuade you to take one stand or the other. Rather, I’m using this topic to demonstrate an important principle. Mainly, we should be tolerant, open-minded, and practice healthy skepticism. It would be an insult to God to blindly follow others. How would you feel if you gave someone a grand piano and they never used it? Worse yet, what if you gave them a brain and they refused to ask questions, ponder facts, and arrive at their own conclusions?

When asked a difficult question, many lack the humility to say, “I don’t know.” Instead of mouthing the words of others, why not say, “That is a complex issue. I haven’t researched it yet. Therefore, I have no conclusions to offer now.” When you’re wondering what position to take on a controversial issue, stop wondering and start researching. You’ll find the investigation rewarding and your resulting opinion will be based on facts instead of hearsay.

“But how will I know the conclusion I reach is the correct one?” Not to worry. The truth is not reduced to black and white, for or against. And the truth is not owned by anyone, but shared by everyone. Regardless of the side of the argument you take, your voice is an important one. If you oppose my views, you will probably find weaknesses in my arguments. Similarly, I may be able to poke a few holes in yours. So, you see, we need each other to see the ‘big picture’ and make sure we consider every aspect of the issue.

Let’s use our God-given gifts to ask questions, unearth facts, and better understand the world He has given us. What do I think about embryonic stem cell research? I don’t know; it’s a complicated issue. I need to do more research, and what better time to begin than now?