Monday, July 13, 2009

An Evangelical Christian Ethic for Life (ECEL), VI: Stem Cell Research

As we continue our series, we reach the topic of stem cell research.

Stem cells are cells found in most multi-cellular organisms; through cellular division, these cells can form into a host of various types of specialized cells. It is proposed by many researchers that, if we could control the specialization process, we could wield vast therapeutic benefits. Stem cell research has been proposed as an opportunity to treat cancer, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, MS, and muscle damage, among others.

However, these research procedures are quite controversial, for reasons which will soon become evident.

There are two basic types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Obviously, early Christians were not capable of discussing stem cell research; therefore, as with cloning, we will address it on basic logical/philosophical grounds built upon the basic foundation of human dignity already established.

Adult Stem Cell Research
Adult stem cells are cells found in a fully-developed organism, and which contain the ability to divide and create cells more differentiated than itself. The term “adult” may be misleading, as these exist in children as well as adults. In fact, one useful source is the blood of umbilical cords, generally discarded after the birth process.

Adult stem cell treatments have been used for many years in fighting cancer via bone marrow transplants; they are also used in veterinary medicine with a great deal of success.

Adult stem cells can be obtained with no ill effect to the donor and used (often) without fear of biological rejection by the donor. No cloning must be performed to develop the cells, nor is any life harmed in the process.

Because there is no effect to human life or dignity, the use of adult stem cells has little controversy for us. We as Christians should wholeheartedly support this method of study.

Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are those derived from a 4-5 day old embryo. Embryonic stem cell research is promising because, at this age, the stem cell is capable of being transformed into over 200 types of cells, thus providing a great deal of potential therapeutic value.

Ultimately, the entire stem cell debate for Christians comes down to one question: at what point does life begin? If life begins at conception, then the destruction of an embryo in order to “strip it for parts” is unconscionable: it is as though one chose an elderly person and started cutting out useful organs. However, if life begins at implantation or some later moment, then the use of embryonic stem cells is completely acceptable.

Recall from our article on abortion the following statement:

The Origin Corollary: “Christian tradition and Scripture clearly indicate only two possible starting points for life. Life begins either at conception, or at the point that the fetal heart begins beating. Any act taken to terminate the pregnancy after these points is an act of abortion; thus, by the General Law of Abortion, these are acts of murder.”

We simply must ask that the Christian uses prayer and wise judgment to decide between these two truths, and applies the result consistently. Thus, there are only two possible results for Christians:

• If life begins at conception, then anything which stops life at that point is murder. Therefore, the morning-after pill, abortions at any stage, in vitro fertilization (which results in the destruction of embryos) and embryonic stem cell research are all unlawful.
• If life begins at 8 weeks, then any destruction of embryo beforehand is acceptable.

Discarded Embryonic Stem Cells
In vitro fertilization has resulted in tens of thousands of embryos soon to be discarded. (For those who believe life begins at conception, this is of course tantamount to mass infanticide.) It is our stance that if these embryos are no longer capable of being implanted for human reproduction, and are planned for destruction, then they may be used for embryonic stem cell research regardless of your belief in the start point of life. After all, this essentially becomes tantamount to organ donor transplant.

We conclude from the above that Christians can wholeheartedly support adult stem cell research, and can hesitatingly accept research on stem cells harvested from in vitro “leftover” embryos—if the embryo is no longer possible for implantation.

With regard to “typical” embryonic stem cell research, Christians must apply logic to determine the start point of life. Our previous research demonstrated that the only viable start points are either conception of 8 weeks (fetal heartbeat). If you are convinced that fetal heartbeat is the start of human life and the soul, then you could support the use of embryonic stem cell research. However, considering the importance of maintaining the sanctity of human life, we believe that embryonic stem cell research should be avoided to err on the side of protecting the rights of all humans (unborn included).