"What's the Fuss about Stem Cell Research?"

Jan.28/07 Sanctity of Human Life Sunday Ps.139:1-6,13-16

Big Stakes, Big Questions

Today we get to apply God's timeless truth in Scripture to a highly current topic. Stem cell research has been a hot topic recently - particularly in the United States, where Democrats and Republicans made it an election issue. Michael J Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's, was one star featured in ads promoting stem cell research that contributed to the Democrats' come-back against President Bush's party.

On this side of the border, embryo manipulation has become more common as Canadians seek solutions to a fertility problem. In 2002 our nation's birth rate reached a record low of 10.5 per 1000 population; in 2003 it was marginally higher, just 10.6. Infertility rates are increasing; it's estimated between 20-30% of Canadians are impacted by infertility. Some couples turn to IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) clinics for help. In 2003, out of 24 IVF centres, for 7415 treatment cycles, the overall birth rate was 24% per cycle started: that translates to some 1780 new Canadians born by this method in one year alone. That's like Blyth & Brussels put together...

We can thank God for a solution in the case of some couples to the ache of childlessness. But as IVF becomes more accepted and routine, its own problems surface. What to do with the 'spare' or 'leftover' embryos created by the procedure? That raises an ethical dilemma if you hold that life begins at conception; that a fertilized and growing egg, with all the DNA complete for a unique individual, is more than just a 'clump of cells'. Do you store the embryos indefinitely, hoping the problem will magically go away? Do you freeze them, risking DNA damage as time goes on? Do you toss these little life-forms in the garbage? Or do you listen to those who advocate that we use them for research, to save lives and decrease suffering for other people?

To begin to answer these questions from a Christian perspective, let's first turn to the Bible to get God's view on things, rather than approaching the issue from a strictly human standpoint.

God's Embrace of Embryos

Psalm 139 is a classic foundation for any discussion of the unborn. Through these verses the Lord demonstrates an intimate KNOWING of those still in the womb. We see His Care begins right from Conception. We marvel at the Delicacy of God's Design. And the Psalm points to our Purpose as a Person, even when we're still 'pre-born'.

The whole Psalm celebrates God's KNOWING of us intimately - no matter where we go, what we do, there's no escaping God's observation of and involvement with us. Listen to the verbs in the first few verses: "You have searched me [NLT examined] and You KNOW me.You KNOW when I sit and when I rise; You PERCEIVE my thoughts from afar. You DISCERN my going out and my lying down; You ARE FAMILIAR WITH all my ways.Before a word is on my tongue you KNOW it completely....You hem me in...You have LAID YOUR HAND upon me.Such KNOWLEDGE is too wonderful for me..."

The words "know" or "knowledge" translate the Hebrew yaw-DAW. This isn't like knowing your multiplication table, or knowing who's the Queen. It's a very close, intimate, experiential type of knowing - so intimate that it's the same verb used in Genesis 4 when Adam and Cain in the KJV 'knew' their wives and begot children. It's complete familiarity, inside-out, with nothing in between. How deep a 'knowing' is it when the Lord knows what we're going to say before our mouth's muscles have started to form the sounds? It's a knowing based on close relationship, moment-by-moment involvement, rather than being distant and remote.

Vv 13-16 focus in more on 3 aspects of this relationship which pertain particularly to those in the womb. There's God's Care shown in our Conception. "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb...My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, Your eyes saw my unformed body." God sees inside the womb, which the NIV Study Bible says is associated here with "the depths of the earth" because of 'darkness, dampness, and separation from the visible realm of life'. No matter how hidden or concealed that process, God had a hand in fashioning this unique being. He is the Creator, knitting or weaving together the elements and strands of DNA and proteins and enzymes required to sustain life.

We are a person to God from the get-go: His knowing us becomes active right from conception. So the Bible does not negate the personhood of the unborn. When John the Baptist's mother Elizabeth is about 6 months pregnant and Mary comes to visit, what happened? The baby leaped in her womb; it's not just circumstance, Elizabeth links it to the sound of Mary's greeting (Lk 1:41,44). Little pre-born John was excited that the mother of His Master was visiting! Not even born, and yet relationships are already starting to come into play.

V14 lifts up the Delicacy of God's Design. "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." God has done a wonderful, marvelous, distinguished, extraordinary job. How does a full-grown adult start out as something smaller than the head of a pin? AND have all the genetic information and means of transmission contained within to produce the next generation as well? Doctors' offices and medical libraries are filled with volumes of information on what can go wrong (when the wrench of the effects of the Fall gets in and jams up the works of the magnificent machine). Isn't it wonderful that most of the time it goes RIGHT?

Reading about stem cells and their stages and capabilities is fascinating - just seeing how the process works. Here's an excerpt on "Stem Cell Biology" from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's Briefing Notes (from here on I'll refer to this group, to which our denomination and 32 others belongs, as EFC): "The most versatile stem cells occur soon after the ovum is fertilized. The fertilized ovum, commonly referred to as the zygote, is called totipotent, because it has the 'total potential' to develop into a fetus. Four days after conception, the zygote has undergone several cycles of cell division and forms a hollow sphere of cells called a blastocyst. The inner cell mass of this very early embryo is made up of pluripotent embryonic stem cells. These cells are able to form virtually every type of cell in the human body, but on their own are not able to form a fetus. The pluripotent cells specialize further into stem cells that give rise to cells with a particular function, e.g. blood stem cells, skin stem cells. The more mature, specialized stem cells are called multipotent, or adult stem cells." Isn't that amazing? Who designed that in the first place? Our awesome God! And it all unfolds so efficiently, so naturally... If it were designed by any human agent even so great as MicroSoft, how many times would we have to 'reboot'?!

Just how delicately we're designed becomes apparent when we start tinkering with the system. The March 8 2001 New England Journal of Medicine reported tragic side effects resulting from an experiment in which fetal brain stem cells were injected into the brains of Parkinson's patients. Approximately 15 percent of patients who received the implants and had shown modest improvements in the short term experienced dramatic overproduction of the neurotransmitter that controls movement, resulting in permanent, uncontrollable movements. Yikes!

And Psalm 139 points to our Purpose as God's Person, even while pre-born. This ought to instill in us a certain sense of the dignity even of embryos. V16, "All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be." Wow! Before we were even out of the womb, our whole life was like an open book to the Sovereign God. He has a destiny, an intention for our life. An example of this is spelled out in the case of Jeremiah the prophet (1:5) to whom God revealed, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." God has a Purpose for us as a Person from the very beginning.

Listen to the Creator's customized craftsmanship in verses 13-16 as the New Living Translation puts it: "You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb.Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!Your workmanship is marvelous--and how well I know it.You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.You saw me before I was born.Every day of my life was recorded in your book.Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed." Truly God's purpose encompasses us, His care embraces us from conception on.

Principled or Pragmatic?

While an embryo's inherent worth seems implicit from such Biblical teaching, not everyone sees it that way. The EFC offers this summary of the principles that believers bring to the discussion of ethics involving human life's earliest stages. "As Christians, we believe that human beings are created in the image of God and have inherent dignity and worth. We believe that life is a gift from God, and that human life begins at conception. It is these beliefs that shape our understanding of the issues surrounding human stem cell research. Protecting human dignity requires that human life be respected and protected through all of its stages, from conception to natural death. Human life begins at conception. The Law Reform Commission of Canada recognized this when it stated 'the product of human conception, in the womb or outside, is a human being.' The human embryo is not a potential human, it is a human being deserving of protection and respect."

But not everyone holds such principles. Many people don't even take what one would call a 'principled' approach to discussing ethical matters. Margaret Somerville is founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and has written several helpful articles on stem cell research and other ethical matters which are available at the EFC website. She notes: "To understand why there is so much disagreement about how to resolve the ethical issues raised by embryo stem cells and cloning, we need first to understand the two different basic approaches to ethical analysis: Principle-based ethical analysis and utilitarian or situational-based ethical analysis. In principle-based ethics analysis, the first question is whether something is inherently wrong. If it is -- for instance, creating a human embryo in order to use it as a product by harvesting its stem cells, killing it in the process -- it must not be done no matter how much good could result.

"In contrast, [in] utilitarian-based ethics...right and wrong depends on whether the good sought out-weighs the risks and harms. Consequently, those who use this approach to justify human embryo stem cell research start by presenting the long list of potential benefits, such as curing cancer, repairing severed spinal cords and so forth."

In my reading, I came across a couple of examples of people of faith who nevertheless seem to allow their principles to be outweighed by pragmatic considerations. They end up sounding like 'the end justifies the means'. For example, Paul Chamberlain, professor of apologetics at Trinity Western University, states: "I can see no moral obligation why we shouldn't use [stem cells which would otherwise be destroyed] if there is a very good purpose that can come about from stem cell research." Chamberlain admits that he has 'struggled with [the issue] pretty hard.'

In a Senate Committee hearing, Rabbi Reuven Bulka, a [normally] pro-life leader in the Canadian Jewish Congress, told members of the Upper Chamber to preserve the "sanctity of life" by allowing embryos to be destroyed for research. (Here's a sophisticated line of thought - listen closely! Bulka told Senators....) "We do not have any problem, religiously, with taking what normally would have been thrown into the garbage or put into disuse and using it to save lives… (I)t would almost be imperative to take that which has life, and instead of discarding it, to use it for whatever opportunity we have."

A more extreme utilitarian view dispenses with ethical concern for the embryos altogether. Then-Health Minister Anne McLellan told reporters that the moral status of the embryos was irrelevant, since, as she said, "they are going to be thrown in the garbage" anyway.

Brave (& Risky) New World

But let's not be too quick to dismiss principles and throw out 'the baby with the bathwater'. Pragmatism soon widens out the thin edge of the wedge and introduces increasingly disturbing practices. There is constant pressure to relax limitations and allow things that were unthinkable previously. In 1995, the federal government asked researchers, scientists and medical practitioners to respect a voluntary moratorium on nine practices including commercial surrogacy, cloning human embryos, forming animal-human hybrids and retrieving eggs from fetuses and cadavers. Anyone using these technologies does not receive government funds; however, newspaper reports indicate these practices are ongoing. A May 1999 Globe & Mail headline: "Surrogate Motherhood a Growth Sector despite Federal Disapproval." Another, also in 1999: "Web Site Offers $2,000 to Human Egg Donors."

Margaret Somerville warns of other possibilities on the horizon. "Possibilities include making an embryo from two ova or two sperm, so two women or two men, respectively, could have their own 'genetically shared' baby, or from three or more genetic parents (New Zealand is considering a birth certificate that would accommodate that reality), and making sperm or ova from adult stem cells."

And just at the beginning of this month, an article published by CanWest News Service said that some Canadian ethicists are concerned by the growing pressure to allow women to donate "fresh" embryos for stem cell research ...Others warn, however, that the fresh-or-frozen debate is just a foot in the door for the outright creation of embryos as research subjects. At least one project for stem cell research with donated fresh embryos has already been approved last June. The pressure will only increase to allow embryos to be created specifically for destructive research.

We need to be extra cautious in what we give permission for in these new reproductive technologies, because there is always pressure to push the boundaries for wicked purposes. The EFC warns, "Outside the limits within God's creation...these technologies could have vast, negative consequences.Vulnerable people, such as infertile couples desperate to have a child or low-income women who may donate eggs or be a surrogate mother out of financial need, are at risk of exploitation through reproductive technologies.We risk turning children into commodities that can be molded and shaped in our own image. Therefore we must be careful with practices that disregard human dignity and seem oriented toward the manipulation and ownership of children and of the very genetic makeup of human beings."

Do Unto Others...

In closing, Margaret Somerville reminds us that honouring the dignity due the least - in this case, embryos - is in everyone's interest; because at some point in our life, we ourselves may have little to justify our existence from a strictly utilitarian point of view. She writes: "The strongest argument for using 'spare' IVF embryos is that nothing is lost by their use. That is, they will die anyway when discarded by the clinic. But the same logic applies (broadly) to dying people. And yet, all of us would be appalled at the idea of terminating their lives so we could harvest their tissues or organs in order to save others. We maintain respect for their lives and do not use them simply as products.

"This last point hints at a broader reason to be very careful about how we treat embryos -- the precedents we could set that would be open to application to the rest of us."

Reminds us of something Jesus taught: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Lu 6:31) May the Lord put His hand upon us to help us chart the path ahead - a path that honours His knowing of and care for those who are least. Let's pray.