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The Stem Cell Question

The Stem Cell Question

This week, President Obama rescinded an executive order that prohibited the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Though this move is the fulfillment of a campaign promise (and shouldn’t surprise us), it is very disturbing for those who are advocates of life. The fundamental impediment to our acceptance of embryonic stem cell research has to do with destruction of the human embryo.

Thankfully, President Obama said he opposed human “cloning,” which would be the creation of human embryos solely for the production of stem cells, rather than with the intention of creating a new human being.

Advocates of life believe that life begins at conception, and since an embryo uninterrupted by death grows into a baby—it is a life. Ethically, any life is inherently valuable and should never be voluntarily destroyed. It is hard to justify the taking of a life in order to extend or improve someone else’s. It seems like cannibalism on some level. And without the protection of the basic right to stay alive, aren’t all other human rights sort of arbitrary?

On the other hand, supporters of stem cell research say it will open up a broad front of research to find better treatments for ailments like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and other serious illnesses. These supporters claim they are being “pro-life” by acting on the moral imperative to alleviate suffering. They are also quick to point out the embryos used for this research are the unused embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise have simply been thrown away.

As you listen to both sides of the debate, it becomes obvious this issue is more complex than it first appears. And there’s some inconsistent logic. Consider, for example, that though the pro-life movement regards all embryos as human persons, pro-life leaders seem mainly concerned about the relatively few embryos that are killed by having their stem cells extracted. There seems to be little or no concern over the many hundreds of thousands of embryos which have been terminated or which will eventually die in in-vitro fertilization clinics.

If we are against the use of stem cell research on the basis of embryonic destruction, shouldn’t we also be against in-vitro fertilization clinics because there are always excess embryos that get discarded?

But how can those of us who love life fight against in-vitro fertilization clinics when those clinics give infertile couples (and those who have great difficulty getting pregnant) the joy of being able to have children? Shouldn’t we celebrate that?

As you can see, conversations about medical ethics can get complex and circuitous very quickly (like many socio-political issues do)—which is precisely the point that most of us miss. We oversimplify issues; we stand on soapboxes; we scream and yell at those who disagree with us (all in the name of God, of course).

Before you scream too loudly over this move by President Obama,  keep in mind that the prohibition for using federal funds under the executive order by President Bush did not stop the practice of harvesting stem cells from unused embryos in fertility clinics. Even President Bush, who disagreed with this ethically, did not try to stop the research completely. Why? It’s a complex issue.

Think about it. You may be (as I am) against destroying embryos to use for stem cell research, but I bet you are delighted for the couples who get to have children as a result of in-vitro fertilization clinics.

You may not be for stem cell research, but what if there was a treatment that utilized stem cells (that would have been tossed away) that would curb a crippling disease tormenting your child or loved one? Wouldn’t you wonder if that wasn’t a good use of what would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage?

Perhaps you scream “NO!”—but can you understand why others might struggle here?

The good news is there is new research that may make this whole discussion moot. According to Science Daily, Dr. Nagy, senior investigator at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, there is a “new method of generating stem cells that does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues such as a patient’s own skin cells.”

As Christians wrestle through issues like this in the 21st century, we need to remember these kinds of developments are not addressed explicitly in Scripture—there are only general parameters to ponder, wonder about, pray over and wrestle through. The problem is many of us try to make these issues black-and-white simple when they often are not. They are filled with complexity. But complexity is too colorful for some of us, and we prefer doling out black-and-white conclusions.

Remember the movie Pleasantville? In the universe of Pleasantville (filmed in black and white instead of color), life was … pleasant. Nothing akin to the horrors of war, famine or AIDS existed there. The bathrooms didn’t even have toilets—that would have been impolite. The high-school basketball team never missed a shot, firemen only rescued cats stuck in trees (there were no house fires), families were perfect and teen sweethearts never went past “first base.” Everything, absolutely everything, was perfect in that idyllic little town.

Some people try to make every issue like Pleasantville—simple and clear, with some added Bible verses blazing (along with chapter and verse) to back up our opinions. We tell people what to think and what to believe. Telling people what seems so much simpler than telling them why. And safer, too.

Thinking, cognizing, conceptualizing, perceiving, understanding, comprehending and cogitating—all are words for actions that are much more complex than simply commanding and directing. Demanding that people think a certain way in order to belong is so clean, so black-and-white simple. Helping them internalize the why behind a position and letting them participate in a discussion on conclusions is both cumbersome and potentially dangerous—they may conclude something different than what we think. God forbid.

Certainly we can tell others at the water cooler and in our churches what we believe about issues like this, but it’s important that we talk and listen and trust God to help us wrestle through the seeming contradictory pros and cons involved. The truth never changes, but how it is applied within the context of the 21st century needs careful consideration. But “careful consideration” demands more trust in both God and His people. That will mean we need to be tolerant, patient and open to diversity and difference of opinion—open to color.

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