Today, with the executive order I am about to sign,” remarked President Obama this past March 9, “we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for and fought for these past eight years: we will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.”
He then went on to comment: “At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown, and it should not be overstated. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand, and possibly cure, some of our most devastating diseases and conditions: to regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair; to spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles; to treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them.”
This sounds like wonderful news. Researchers tell us and the president repeated that these terrible diseases—the ones that impact our lives, our families, our congregations, and communities—will someday be all but wiped out.
What the President didn’t say is that over the past eight years—during the Bush administration—stem cells were already being used in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s, various cancers, heart disease, arthritis, sickle cell anemia, and a host of other maladies.
These therapies do not, however, use embryonic stem cells. In fact, no therapies using embryonic stem cells have been developed. The ones that work employ adult stem cells, and this distinction is at the heart of a giant scientific/medical/political snarl that needs untangling. That untangling begins by understanding something about stem cells.
How Stem Cells Work
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Stem cells are master cells of the body—cells from which all other cells with specialized functions are created.” Most cells divide to create more of their kind. Bone cells form new bone cells; heart cells form new heart cells; brain cells form new brain cells. The amazing thing about stem cells is that when they divide, the result is either new stem cells or they can differentiate into the specialized cells that make up all the parts of the body—brain cells, bone cells, heart cells, liver cells, and so on. Stem cells are “pluripotent” (able to affect more than one organ or tissue), and this phenomenon is most dramatic in embryonic stem cells.
We all began life as one cell. When human egg and sperm combine, a single human cell is formed that then begins to divide. After four or five days that one cell has divided into many cells, forming a ball of cells called a blastocyst. Cell differentiation has already taken place. The outer cells of the blastocyst become the child’s placenta. The inner cells are embryonic stem cells. At four or five days they are all identical, but over time, these cells develop into all the parts of the child.
It is summed up beautifully in Psalm 139:13-14a: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made … .”
This fearful and wonderful ability to differentiate into cells of every sort is the great hope of stem cell therapies. Stem cells injected into a damaged heart can become healthy heart cells that replace and repair the heart tissue. Injected into the pancreas of a diabetic, the stem cells turn into healthy cells producing insulin.
The great moral concern has to do with embryonic stem cells that are obtained by destroying the blastocyst—that is, killing the embryonic human for its parts.
But are those blastocysts human beings who, ina just society, deserve protection? In answer to that question, Princeton University’s Robert P. George, along with Patrick Lee, wrote in The New Atlantis: “Indeed they are, and contemporary human embryology and developmental biology leave no significant room for doubt about it. The adult human being reading these words was, at an earlier stage of his or her life, an adolescent, and before that an infant. At still earlier stages he or she was a fetus and before that an embryo. In the infant, fetal, and embryonic stages, each of us was then what we are now, namely, a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens.”
This point is intensified for everyone who believes man is made in God’s image. Just as an ancient king was quick to build statues, to erect his image in every town, to remind his subjects that he was their ruler—God, in the beginning, did the same thing. Genesis 1:26-27 says that human beings are the image of God and that we are to fill the earth. God, the true King, created images of Himself and commanded that we spread everywhere as visual reminders of the great Sovereign.
Protecting Sacred Life
Because humans bear the image of God, human life is sacred. Murder is more than a crime against the victim. It is rebellion against God, the King. It takes the image that announces God’s kingship and destroys it (see Genesis 9:5-6). When we murder the image of God at any stage of human development, from conception to the deathbed, we shake a defiant fist, rejecting God’s rightful reign. Killing a human—even an embryonic human—is an act of rebellion against God’s sovereign majesty.
The argument is further tightened when we consider the incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus, the adult who died on the cross for our sins, had been an adolescent, and before that a child, and before that an infant, and before that an embryo, and before that a blastocyst—a ball filled with stem cells. Jesus’ life, through each stage of human development, demonstrated what it means to be human. We dare not take embryonic life.
Medical research and treatment that relies on taking human life—no matter how tiny that human life may be—is thus more than unethical, it is abhorrent. If the promise of stem cells relied entirely on killing tiny human beings, the whole project would have to be written off as a moral monstrosity.
Fortunately (or should I say, providentially), it doesn’t. There are at least three alternative sources of stem cells that do not involve embryos and appear to have much more promise than stem cells derived from embryos.
First, the organs of your body contain stem cells. These pluripotent adult stem cells are an internal repair kit to keep us healthy. Second, stem cells are found in abundance in the placenta and umbilical cord, causing some to argue that these should be saved for the future medical needs of the newborn. Third, scientists have been able to reprogram adult cells to behave like stem cells, that is, to be pluripotent. According to a fact sheet from the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics, these “induced pluripotent stem cells … are obtained by taking an ordinary somatic [body] cell, such as a skin cell, and reprogramming it to an embryonic-like pluripotent state; the somatic cell is induced to become a pluripotent cell, much like a computer is reprogrammed to run a different program.”
The Complexities of Stem Cell Research
How do we know all of this, given what the media has for years been calling “President Bush’s ban on stem cell research”? We know it because there has never been a “ban on stem cell research.” There was a ban on using federal dollars to fund embryo-destructive research.
President Bush was faced, on the one hand, with researchers wanting federal dollars for embryo-destructive stem cell research. Those stem cells would be derived not only from “leftover” embryos created for in vitro fertilization, but harvested from embryos created for research by fertilization or cloning.
On the other hand, many Americans, including, I believe, George Bush, have determined that such research is unjust since it exploits weak and helpless humans by destroying them for the good of others. Therefore, this research should never take place. But if it can’t be stopped, at least, Bush reasoned, it should not be done with tax dollars.
So on August 9, 2001, President Bush ordered a compromise. Federal funds could be used for embryonic stem cell research only if three criteria were met. First, the embryonic stem cells had to be from lines of cells derived from embryos destroyed prior to his executive order. Second, the embryos had to be ones that were created for reproduction, but were no longer needed, the so-called leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics. Third, scientists needed the informed consent of the embryo donors.
He did not permit federal dollars to fund research that created and destroyed additional human embryos for new lines of embryonic stem cells. That embryo-destructive research, when performed, was done, with private funding or with dollars from state governments.
In addition, President Bush encouraged and funded research to discover ways of obtaining stem cells that did not involv human embryos. That research has been so successful that the need for destroying human embryos to obtain stem cells no longer exists.
Then on March 9, as Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Robert P. George wrote in the March 10 Wall Street Journal, “Inexplicably—apart from political motivations—President Obama revoked not only the Bush restrictions on embryo-destructive research funding, but also the 2007 executive order that encourages the National Institutes of Health to explore non-embryo-destructive sources of stem cells.”
The notion that embryo-destructive research will result in miracle cures may be true, but not anytime soon. This is in spite of a great deal of hype about the first clinical trials using embryonic stem cells. On January 23, approval was given to begin trials on humans to treat spinal cord injuries. But as the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics noted: “The FDA-approved trial is not designed to test the efficacy of [human embryonic stem cells] in treating spinal cord injuries, but only as a test of the safety of transplanting such cells into the patients. This is because in numerous studies with animals, embryonic stem cells have been shown to form—often lethal—tumors.”
Adult stem cells do not carry the risk of tumors and are being used now to help patients suffering from at least 73 ailments, including Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, a variety of cancers, and HIV. Embryonic stem cells have so far laid a goose egg.
The Pull of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Given that goose egg and the availability of pluripotent stem cells without destroying human embryos, what is the irresistible appeal of embryo-destructive research?
First, there is professional ambition. Embryo research is cutting edge and scientists are attracted to innovation. Embryonic stem cell research is and will continue to be very useful as a means of employment for embryonic stem cell researchers. Besides, there are big names in the biological sciences who have made their reputation on embryonic stem cells. Few will have the humility and courage to admit that there are better alternatives, particularly when research grants are available from foundations, states, private industry, and now from the federal government.
Second, this is a political opportunity to demonize religious social conservatives as anti-science ideologues who have no compassion for the sick and suffering. But as Brian Keim, who disagreed with the Bush policy, wrote on the Wired Science Blog, “Bush’s limitations on embryonic research were ethical and legitimate—but not, as many observers have noted, anti-science.” President Obama’s executive order is also an ethical and ideological statement, one that is perfectly consistent with his efforts to block even the most minor restrictions on abortion. The only question in politics is whose ethics and ideology will gain the upper hand. For now, as President Obama has reminded us, “I won.”
Third, all research on embryos adds to our knowledge base and will, sooner or later, allow us to build human beings to order. Scientists hope to create genetically identical human fetuses for use in medical experiments—the new generation of laboratory mice. Some would-be parents are anxious to turn having a child into the ultimate shopping experience. Eggs are harvested and fertilized, and the resulting embryos are screened and sorted prior to implantation. Prospective parents can already choose gender and be assured that there are no congenital problems. Soon hair color, intelligence, height, and talents will be added to the list of designer options.
While the word “eugenics” has been out of favor, the desire to control the genetic future of the human species remains strong. Embryonic stem cell research is a gateway technology to genetic engineering.
Fourth, as my former colleague Jim Berkley pointed out, embryo-destructive research is related to abortion: “The abortion industry wants every reason possible to dehumanize the embryo. If everybody gets excited about potential (or actual) results from [the use of embryonic] stem cells, then society becomes hardened toward protecting the unborn. And thus the abortion folks prosper. But if humanitarian care and moral consideration are given to the embryo in relation to research, then there is great cognitive dissonance if the same embryos are cast off without a care in abortion.
Finally, the potential financial gain is astronomical because embryonic stem cells can be patented. Dr. Geoffrey Raisman, a leader in the use of adult stem cells to treat spinal cord injuries, told The Guardian (UK): “This is not the most popular way of attempting to heal spinal injuries. That would be to produce patented chemicals, which drug companies can make and sell. What we’re proposing could be carried out by any very modestly equipped hospital with neurosurgery. There are no patents. It makes it a very unpopular form of research.
If the goal is profit, it may be well worth the additional effort to pursue embryonic stem cell solutions in spite of substantial technical, biological, and ethical roadblocks.
Just as it is morally repugnant to subject adult humans who are made in the image of God to deadly medical experimentation, it is morally repugnant to subject embryonic humans who are also made in the image of God to deadly medical experimentation. As Alan Milstein, a lawyer specializing in bioethics, told students at the University of Virginia Law School, “A successful result will never make an unethical experiment ethical.”
This argument is not at its core religious, although our Christian faith being rooted in the notion of men and women created in the image of God and in the Christ’s incarnation makes the case much stronger. Nevertheless, this is a human argument based on self-evident truths about humanity, equality, and justice. Science needs moral boundaries, particularly when research is done on humans. The strong should care for “the least of these,” not exploit them. Children, even embryonic children, should be received as gifts, not treated as tools or the raw material of an immoral biotechnical future.
For more information on this subject please go to the “Podcast” section of the byFaithonline.com website or click here. There, you’ll find our in-depth conversation with Jim Tonkowich.
Jim Tonkowich is the former President of the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). Prior to joining IRD, Jim pastored Peninsula Hills Presbyterian Church, and served as the managing editor of BreakPoint with Chuck Colson.