There is stem cell research that is praiseworthy because it never harms or terminates life. Rather, it helps life by restoring quality, protecting it, and reflecting life’s true and absolute value. Such ethical stem cell research is already taking place. It is known as “adult stem cell research” and “cord blood stem cell research.”
No lives are terminated in these types of research. Does it hold the full potential as embryonic stem cell research? Some say, “No,” but the better answer might be, “We don’t know yet.” Despite wonderful advancements that have already been made in adult and cord blood stem cell research, those efforts are still in their infancy. I am very optimistic that as research advances in those areas we will see great progress.
As for embryonic stem cell research, there is no defensible logic in terminating a defenseless life for the utilitarian purpose of helping the lives of others. There is a Biblical and moral obligation to cultivate a different solution than to destroy life for the speculative reason that we might find ways to help preserve life.
Stem cells are considered foundational building blocks of human beings. Stem cells have the potential to develop into many other specialized cells within the human body. These basic (or “blank”) stem cells have the ability to develop (“differentiate”) into specialized cells that have become lost or damaged. They are capable of self-renewing, that is they can divide indefinitely and can make identical copies of themselves. The primary interest in stem cell research is the potential to repair and replace damaged tissue and organs in the human body.
Stem cells are classified by the way they appear in the process of human development and the level of their flexibility to become other kinds of cells in the body. They are categorized as either totipotent, pluripotent, or multipotent stem cells. This is what that means:
How these cells are harvested is at the crux of the stem cell research controversy. Both totipotent and pluripotent stem cells typically involve cells within the zygote for totipotent cells (the first four days after fertilization) while pluripotent cells are taken from the blastocyst (cells formed in the early embryonic stage of human life). When reading stories about ESC it is referencing Embryonic Stem Cells (pluripotent). Typically, work with totipotent and pluripotent stem cells requires the termination of human life at its earliest stages. This is a serious concern for Christians who hold to the Biblical teaching that life begins at conception.
Multipotent stem cells are taken from already differentiated cells. Multipotent stem cells are often called “adult” or “somatic” (which means “body” or “flesh”) stem cells. Harvesting multipotent stem cells does not require the termination of life. Rather, multipotent cells are taken from tissue or organs of the body.
Another form of multipotent stem cells are those which are harvested from umbilical cord blood. Though already differentiated, these cells seem to have greater flexibility than typical multipotent stem cells and do not raise the ethical concerns involved in the harvesting of pluripotent stem cells.
Scientists are split in their beliefs about the type of stem cells that will provide the greatest benefit to the most people. Some believe pluripotent cells show the greatest potential because they can become many different kinds of cells. The challenge is to successfully trigger the direction for cell development and, of course, the ability to harvest such cells without terminating life.
Other scientists like to focus on multipotent cells because the direction of future development is primarily determined already.
Scientists have developed a process whereby skin or blood cells (these are multipotent stem cells, also called “adult” or “somatic” cells) are taken and reverted back to a pluripotent type of cell. Those who favor pluripotent stem cell research point out that adult cells – which can be induced to become pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – provide the desired flexibility of pluripotency and avoid the ethical implications involving the termination of embryonic life.
The most common objection to iPSC research is that it requires additional work to revert the multipotent stem cells to their previous pluripotent state.
“SCR Research”; “Stem Cell Therapy”; “Regenerative Medicine”; “Stem Cell Transplant”; “Bone Marrow Transplant”
In order to obtain embryonic stem cells (pluripotent stem cells), the embryo must be destroyed. For that reason, embryonic stem cell research is viewed by life-affirming individuals and organizations as unethical regardless of its perceived benefit.
“As for embryonic stem cell research, there is no defensible logic in terminating a defenseless life for the utilitarian purpose of helping the lives of others. There is a Biblical and moral obligation to cultivate a different solution that otherwise destroys life in the name of preserving life.” – Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
Ethical boundaries are not crossed in the use of non-controversial sources such as adult, iPS, and cord blood stem cells. These therapies have distinct advantages including:
Bone marrow transplantation, for example, is the most widely-used stem cell therapy. It is, in many technical terms, multipotent adult stem cell transplantation.
ANSWER: CLR does not consider the lack of success as the reason to reject embryonic stem cell research. In fact, we don’t categorically reject all embryonic stem cell research. In our efforts to follow the guidelines in God’s Word we work to defend the lives of all people regardless of age, perceived quality, or status. Therefore we reject any procedure that intentionally destroys human life. Since the current process of harvesting embryonic stem cells involves the killing of embryos we must condemn the process.
Research groups continue to pursue methods of harvesting embryonic stem cells without destroying human lives. If effective harvesting methods are established that don’t involve the intentional killing of young lives, it is possible that CLR would endorse such research.
ANSWER: You are right that many stories have been published on this topic. Very simply, the greatest attribute of embryonic stem cells is that they are more capable of differentiating into virtually any type of cell. The greatest hurdle involves the harvesting process which usually leads to the killing of embryos. Some people justify the loss of human life for the “greater good” of treating serious diseases. CLR cannot endorse the intentional killing regardless of any perceived benefit.
The discovery that adult stem cells can now be reprogrammed to act similarly to embryonic stem cells comes as welcomed news. In short, this means embryonic stem cell research can be conducted without killing embryos. Because this method removes a major ethical problem, the Christian community can be more supportive of this research. In addition, we continually encourage further research with adult stem cells, because this type has already shown tremendous success and does not involve the loss of human lives.
Despite the hurdles yet to come, this development has been proven to be a far better alternative in embryonic stem cell research than previously used methods.
ANSWER: The weight of this argument is in the numbers. This hypothetical argument states that only one life is sacrificed to save many others. The truth is that thousands, and perhaps millions, of embryos are needed to conduct the research, yet no successes are documented in treating humans with embryonic stem cells.
CLR is primarily opposed to embryonic stem cell research because it involves the intentional destruction of human life. The weight of the evidence makes one ask why such a procedure could be supported that destroys many lives and provides no evidence of saving even one.
When People Say: “Embryonic stem cell research is necessary to further the work toward a cure for deadly diseases or injuries.”
All of us likely fear that one of those “deadly diseases” may strike someone we love or ourselves. We understand that medical research and scientific endeavors may someday save countless lives. We hope medicine may one day save the life of someone close to us. So when you hear the above statement, it is difficult to answer without being made to feel that somehow you are against research, against life-saving medical gains, and without compassion for those who suffer.
You Can Reply: “Stem cells can be obtained from other sources that don’t kill an embryo.”
Stem cells are immature cells that later differentiate into specific cells such as hair cells, neural cells, kidney cells, etc. In the laboratory, stem cells are coaxed into maturing into specific tissue types. The hope of stem cell research is to be able to use these nurtured cells to repair tissue injury and disease in those who are ill or dying. For instance, stem cells nurtured into neural cells are used to treat those with Parkinson’s disease, with further hope to use them in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other neural deficits. The truth of the matter, however, is that stem cells don’t have to be obtained from human embryos. They are also obtainable from adult bone marrow, adult blood, and the umbilical cord and placenta of newly-delivered babies. Researchers from UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh revealed in April 2001 that they were able to isolate stem cells from ordinary fat removed by liposuction. The truth is, that scientists have the ability to harvest large quantities of stem cells from various noncontroversial sources. Research on these sources of stem cells also gives hope to those who look for a cure for a deadly disease or injury – without killing a tiny human life.
When People Say: “Researchers of embryonic stem cells are not killing anything – there are only cells five days after fertilization.”
The above words are a direct quote from a researcher speaking at a Parkinson’s Symposium in 2003 which was held for health professionals. Along with this statement, it is common to hear: “These embryos will be discarded anyway. Why throw something away that has potential use to others?” This line is thrown in to ease any guilt one might feel about destroying the embryo. It softens the impact. Certainly using the embryo for helping others is far better than discarding it in a scientific garbage heap. When you hear these arguments put on the armor of God, for the devil is actively seeking to recruit you to his side. Here is how you can speak for life.
You Can Reply: “It is precisely because the cells are alive that make them attractive to research.”
If the embryonic cells were not alive they would have absolutely no value for the medical researcher. There is no scientist who can take dead cells and nurture them to grow, thrive, and differentiate to a specific cell or tissue. This argument is a throwback to the abortion debate: “It is only a bunch of cells, a clump of tissue, it is not a baby.” Yet it is elementary science to know that cells are living things. Religion aside, basic embryology textbooks are clear that life is present at conception. Basic embryology aside, the Bible confirms there is life at conception. “Surely I was sinful at birth sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). All of us, at one point, were five days post-fertilization and were no less important than we are now. An embryo used for stem cell research dies. The five-day-old cells killed today may be the scientist of tomorrow.
The discarding of a frozen embryo is also the destruction of human life and is no different than killing it to gain something from it. The Apostle Paul admonishes us in Romans 3 to not do evil so that good results. Buying into the scientific theory that killing a human embryo will benefit those of us outside the womb is the ends-justify-the-means mentality that Paul warns us about. He also tells us in Galatians 5:13 – “…do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather serve one another in love.” Our sinful nature leads us to think it is okay to destroy a clump of cells, but it is not in love that we would do such a thing. It would be better to show love to those who are suffering by caring for them and sharing God’s Word.
Finally, Proverbs 10:2 tells us, “Ill-gotten treasures are of no value, but righteousness delivers from death.” It is of interest to note that embryonic stem cells infused into some patients with Parkinson’s disease grew too well, leading to the release of so much of the needed chemical (which Parkinson’s victims lack) that the patients writhed and jerked uncontrollably. Better to have avoided the use of these ill-gotten treasures and fixed their hope on God’s promise: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).