Stem cell research: What is a Christian to do?
itting in his study, the pastor welcomed two faithful and wonderful church members, Rod and Betty.* They had requested a private meeting. Don, the pastor, noticed they were a little more flushed than usual. After the initial greetings, Rod looked at Betty. She responded, "You start, Rod."
Over the next few minutes, they poured their hearts out over their inability to have children. Soon, they began to focus on their main concern: what did the pastor think about in vitro fertilization (IVF)?
Their doctor proposed that Betty should undergo hormonal stimulation to produce a cluster of eggs that would be harvested through a special irrigating syringe. These eggs would be exposed to Rod's sperm in a special chamber, and then the best candidates for implantation in Betty's uterus would be selected after about 48 hours. The hope, of course, was that this would result in pregnancy.
Pastor Don, looking at Rod and Betty, inquired of their concerns.
"Well," replied Betty, "they may get more eggs than they can put in my uterus. If they do, they propose to freeze any extra eggs, and we could possibly use them later."
Don looked at this couple. They were about 35 years old, and would make wonderful parents. It would be terrific for them to have children. "Betty," said the pastor, "since the doctors say your fallopian tubes are blocked, I think this would be a wonderful thing for you to do."
A few months later, a beaming Rod and Betty whispered to the pastor as they left the church after the service, "We're pregnant!"
About three months later, Rod and Betty met him again after the service. Rod was still beaming; Betty a little less so.
"Guess what, pastor," he said. "We're having triplets."
And they did-a little girl and two identical boys. Betty looked a little less manicured at times and Rod a little more rumpled than before, but they were a happy growing family, a real asset to the church.
Don left and eventually became a conference president. One day, during camp meeting, Rod and Betty, flanked by three beautiful children, greeted him. They looked fabulous-Rod had gained a little paunch, but Betty was still beautiful and the children so well behaved. Later, at Betty and Rod's request, the three had a chance to visit.
"Pastor," said Betty, "when we underwent IVF, they harvested seven eggs. They implanted three, but there are four still frozen. They charge us two hundred dollars a year for storage, but last month we were approached to offer them for research. They want to make the eggs into stem cells."
Rod cut in, "They say there are great possibilities that stem cells will be used for treatment of diseases like cancer, degenerative diseases, heart failure, even common problems like diabetes. Do you think it's right for us to give the eggs for research?"
Don's mind began to race. He hadn't really kept up with the news. What was it he had read about embryonic and adult cells?
What should he say? The issue was complex, difficult. It impacts areas of theology, ethics, and choice.
Getting some facts
Asking for a little time to think, the pastor went to his computer and did some research. He found that stem cells possess the ability to multiply into lines with specific functions. He found that a blood stem cell can differentiate its "offspring" into multiple types of blood cells, and that from these cells all the two hundred or so specialized cells found in the human body are derived. Stem cells themselves become somewhat specialized too. In other words, a careful search in tissues may find stem cells within them, but these stem cells are sparse in number, difficult to harvest, and often will only develop into the tissue from which they were derived. So, whatever potential these "adult" cells have, it's nowhere near as good as that found in the fertilized egg itself. Scientists have found that cells in the egg are potent stem cells that can be directed to grow, we believe, into any kind of human organ. The promise of an embryonic stem cell lies in this great capacity to become any kind of tissue. If a kidney or lung, heart muscle or brain cell were to be developed from such stem cells, the possibilities for replacing degenerated or ailing tissues in living patients seem enormous. Such tissues would, however, be derived at the expense of the "potential" development of a whole baby.
A fertilized egg, or one cell, will rapidly produce dozens of cells-any one of which, at this early stage, is capable of being removed and of functioning as the fertilized egg it came from. This has led to geneticists removing a single cell from an embryo and testing that cell for genetic disease.
With such a cell found to be healthy, the embryo from which it was taken has the capability of being implanted where it may continue to grow and produce a normal baby. In fact, any cell taken from the embryo possesses such potential that an individual could, if implanted in a uterus under favorable conditions, become an identical twin to the embryo from which it was derived. This potency is being sought by research scientists. Seeking this potency, scientists have looked at taking an unfertilized ovum and placing a nucleus from a regular cell within it called the process of cloning, but its purpose would be to develop stem cells.
What to do?
Rod and Betty had been asked to give their fertilized eggs or embryos for research. They were too old to parent these embryos; they could offer them for adoption in someone else's womb, but hundreds of thousands of such embryos are available. The question facing them, in reality, was what to do with these fertilized eggs?
Don scratched his head in bewilderment. Does the pastor have to be the final arbiter of ethics in these complex questions?
The next day, Don met with Rod and Betty.
"Well," he said, "I have really learned a lot, but I had to navigate past all the sites that are committed to promoting or condemning the whole idea! The Internet includes just a babble of confusion, but I actually found the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies the most helpful. They have printed Guidelines for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research."
"But the scientific stuff doesn't help us with the ethical dilemma, pastor," interjected Betty.
"What does the Bible say about stem cell research? That is really our question," said Rod.
"We were told," added Betty, "when we had the diagnosis of the triplets, that the doctors were willing to ablate one of them to help the other two survive, and I'm really glad we decided to keep all three-but I don't know what we would have done if there had been six!" said Betty.
"Sometimes it's hard to know what is the greater good," said Don.
"We're sure, at our age, we don't want more children," said Rod. "And we don't know anyone that wants the eggs."
"What happens if they are not used for fertility purposes?" asked Don.
"They eventually die off or will be thrown out," said Betty, "and that's the whole problem. What a dreadful waste to let them just die off."
Don's mind went back to the advice he had given to go ahead with the in vitro fertilization. Things are never easy! As he thought about it, he remembered the sign he had seen the pro-life paraders waving, "If it's not a baby, you're not pregnant." He wondered, If you're not pregnant, is it a baby?
"I feel the crux of this matter," he said, "revolves around when an individual life begins. When a cell is taken to test that the fertilized egg is genetically normal, and indeed found to be normal, then the egg is implanted. Should a normal baby develop, then no one questions that its life was taken to guarantee its health, do they?"
"No," replied Betty. "But if it were an abnormal fertilized cell, carrying a dreadful disease like Tay-Sachs-which means certain death by the age of three-there are still folk who would say it should be implanted."
"That's OK for them to say, but what if it were you?" interjected Rod. "I don't see this as an abortion, because there is no pregnancy. I don't think life exists before a pregnancy starts."
"It's not about what we think," Betty said, looking at the pastor. "The question is, What does the Bible say?"
"The difficulty is that these questions are quite out of the context of Bible times," said Don. "Really, we can look for principles only. In Genesis, it says God formed Adam when He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul, but, of course, this ‘breath of life' was not the same as a baby's first breath. It had the life force of the Creator in it."
"So, if life begins before the breath, does it start with conception, implantation, when there is blood, or when?" asked Rod.
"Again, the Bible is not direct in answering this question," answered Don. "We look at texts such as Psalm 139, where David talks of being known of God when he was ‘curiously wrought,' as the King James Version puts it, signifying embryonic formation. But then, again, the Old Testament punishment for causing a miscarriage was not the same as for killing a person, suggesting a sliding scale of value."
Rod interjected, "But what about those texts that say ‘the life is in the blood'? Does that mean that life begins when blood forms, which would only occur after some six weeks of gestational age?"
"We just don't know for sure, Rod," Don answered, "though most Christians want to avoid ever willingly destroying a pregnancy at any stage."
Betty looked imploringly at Don. "But I'm not pregnant, pastor. These are microscopic cells in a petri dish."
Just then, old man Hetherington was wheeled past in his wheelchair. His face was blank, his hands trembled. Suffering with Parkinson's disease, he looked pathetic. They all thought, Could stem cell research one day reverse his condition and give him back his strength and vigor?
Pastor Don was reflective. "I would say there is so much debate on the actual point in time that life begins that we may never be able to answer the question. However, surely, as Christians, we need to have certain principles in mind when considering such issues.
"I would list them as, first, a deep respect for human life, recognizing it as mysterious, magnificent, and God-given. I believe we have to respect human dignity, yet we do have a responsibility to advance human health. We also, as Christians, are committed to the alleviation of human suffering. Truthfulness, personal autonomy, and justice are so important to the Christian. Yet, I also feel embryos should never be created for the sole purpose of research or advancement of knowledge."
Betty interrupted, "But we didn't create these embryos for research!"
"I'm not saying you did," replied Don, "and in this circumstance, I'm unsure what to advise-but do feel that, even if you were to agree to research, there should be the strictest ethical handling of the tissues, with special committees overseeing the research."
Rod nodded his head. "They have those committees at the university, pastor, and they have a good representation of theologians on the committee. And, you know, pastor, it is also a Christian imperative to be involved in helping others. Christ spent a lot of His time healing the sick."
"I personally would feel better if they only took a cell or two off the embryo, and I could then consider the original embryo as a kind of ‘tissue donor,' " said Betty, "and in that way, we could always bequeath the embryo to a couple later if they wanted to try and have a baby."
"Yes," said the pastor, "it would go a long way to relieving some anxieties about the whole process."
Rod and Betty looked at each other. "So, the church doesn't have rules on this, pastor?" asked Rod.
"Not our church," said Don. "After all, we are the church, and we haven't been able to come to an easy ‘Thus saith the Lord.' And neither have our theologians reached a clear consensus. Perhaps this is one of those areas where we each, individually, have to come to a conclusion that we consider comfortable for us, because the church cannot be our conscience. When we do this-prayerfully and intelligently-then we permit the Spirit to guide."
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* Rod and Betty are pseudonyms.