Embryonic Stem Cells Present Ethical Limits
David A. Kaufmann, Ph.D.
The latest political football involving our country’s rapid advances in bioscience and technology is stem cell research. Just what is stem cell research, and what is the Biblical Christian view of it?
What is Stem Cell Research?
Stem cells are living units that can grow and differentiate into multiple, different types of advanced, mature cells. There are four classes of stem cells.
1. Totipotent – these form when a fertilized ovum first divides. They can develop into a complete, mature human of many trillions of functioning cells.
2. Pluripotent (Embryonic Stem Cells) – after a few days the totipotent stem cell forms a blastocyst (a ball of embryonic cells that forms a few days after cellular fertilization). The inner cell mass of the blastocyst is capable of developing into three types of specialized cells (none of these types of cells can develop into a mature human organism):
- Mesoderm – a core tissue that can develop into bone, muscle, heart and blood cells.
- Ectoderm – an outer layered tissue that can develop into nervous cells, eyes, ears, skin and hair.
- Endoderm – an inner tissue layer that can develop into the digestive and respiratory tracts that develops into gastrointestinal cells, lungs and glands
3. Multipotent (Adult Stem Cells) – these cells are found in mature tissue and replace worn out cells of certain organs and tissues, e.g., bone marrow cells can develop into new kinds of blood cells.
4. Umbilical Cord/Placental – these develop from the trophoblast (the part of a blastocyst that becomes the placenta and umbilical cord) and end up in the discarded umbilical cord and placenta that can, within limits, develop into some mature functional cells.
Cellular biologists believe that by experimenting they can learn to direct the development of stem cells into various types of new cells that can possibly rejuvenate or replace the diseased cells of certain organs, e.g., growing new insulin-producing cells, transplanting them into a diseased pancreas and possibly curing some forms of diabetes. The problem is that when the pluripotent stem cells from the embryo are extracted, the human embryo dies. This ignores the scientific fact that life exists at conception, and the Bible reaffirms this as David stated “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Here David under inspiration of the Holy Spirit talks of “me at conception” not at birth. Also, the Christian is called to defend life at all stages of development and conditions, because life does not originate from man’s power, but comes from the Triune God as a gift. Isaiah stated: “Before I was born the Lord called me; from my birth He has made mention of my name” (Isaiah 49:1b).
The Truth of the Scientific Matter
Secular scientists argue that through embryonic stem cell research they will be able to alleviate and cure certain diseases. The truth of the matter is no scientist is absolutely sure this can be done and at best there are remote possibilities that it might be done. Even if medical scientists can nurture some stem cells to develop into new healthy cells, there is no guarantee these cells will function efficiently or effectively in a diseased recipient person. There is so much biochemical diversity among humans and so many roadblocks to histochemical (the chemical make up of various types of cells) and biochemical compatibility between synthesized and daughter cells from embryonic stem cells and the diseased cells of the patient. It will take decades of medical trial and error research to determine if we can attain beneficial results. The ethical solution to this problem is for the medical research profession to allow only research on umbilical cord/placental and adult stem cells in which a human life is not sacrificed on the altar of possible utilitarian advances against diseases. Certainly the federal government should not fund in any way research that devalues and destroys human life at any stage.
Why Are Some Scientists Advocating To Do Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
There are two answers to this question:
First, scientists are very intelligent, highly trained and competitive people. Many aspire to professional greatness. Unfortunately, many use a relative value system embodied in the philosophy of post-modernism (there is no absolute truth; all propositions are relative). This leads them to worship the triune god of secularism: money, power and fame. If a stem cell researcher can within reason help to remedy or cure a certain disease, he/she would become wealthy, famous and professionally powerful. He/she would be one of the brightest stars of the medical scientific profession. Their name would go down in medical history. Also, the media can share some of the blame for this problem. Many times they report the high sounding speculations of aspiring scientists as sure things. In their zeal for sensational copy, they resort to exaggerated claims of definite success. They emphasize the will and not the may, The truth is stem cell researchers have no accurate, absolute idea just how successful stem cell research will be. It will take decades of careful stem cell research on umbilical cord/placental and adult stem cells to see what really will definitely happen.
Secondly, since post-modernism is the “Zeitgeist” (spirit of the times) sweeping through our country, some medical researchers are abandoning long-standing traditional medical ethics for something of their own invention. This leads to the view that there is no limit to human experimentation. They believe society must allow subsets of the population to be targeted for destruction in the name of usefulness for others. They believe it is moral to do wrong in order to do right, i.e., utilitarianism. Biblically, this is condemned in Romans 3:8 where Paul condemns “doing evil that good may result.” It is never right to do wrong in order to do right. All the medical scientists who advocate embryonic stem cell research were at one point of life a blastocyst and were no less important then as they are now. The blastocyst killed today may have been the medical scientist of tomorrow. Besides this, most of the evil leaders throughout world history followed this view of “the ends justifies the means” in harming and killing those people they felt were defective or inferior or undesirable.
Also, these pro-embryonic stem cell researchers ignore the fact that the post-Nazi Nuremberg Code, the World Medical Association’s Helsinki Declaration and the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights all declare: “members of the human species who cannot give informed consent for research should not be subjects of an experiment unless they personally may benefit from it.” Death of the subject is not a personal benefit for the subject.
When we affirm the value of every human life at any and all stages of life as specially created and redeemed by God, then we must oppose any harm or violence against human life. Medical science must not be given a blank check to do whatever it can. Medical science must serve humanity but must be restrained by immutable moral codes established by God’s Word. Using only umbilical cord/placental and adult stem cells for research into possibly curing some diseases is the morally correct and safe policy for our country to follow.
Dr. David Kaufmann is a retired professor of Exercise Science at the University of Florida with a Ph.D. in Human Anatomy. He is also a member of Zion Ev. Lutheran Church in Gainesville, Florida.