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Stem Cells and the Fabric of Life: How I Changed My Mind

The current presidential campaign, especially Ron Reagan Jr.’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, has brought embryonic stem cell research back to the public consciousness. Not surprisingly, but nonetheless disappointingly, the partisan rhetoric of a presidential campaign has done little to clarify this complex matter. Instead, the debate has fallen into clichéd categories and simplistic separations.

Embryonic stem cells are the amazing, unique cells found in the inner cell mass of early embryos. Removing the stem cells destroys the embryo. Embryonic stem cells are “totipotent,” meaning they have the ability to develop into any of the diverse forms of cells found in the body. Given the right treatment and stimulation, embryonic stem cells can become bone cells, nerve cells, blood cells, etc. This gives them significant potential for medical treatment of certain diseases.

The most common source for embryonic stem cells are the surplus embryos from fertility treatments, although once obtained, stem cells can then be maintained and grown in laboratories, in what is called a stem cell line. There are other sources for stem cells, such as miscarried or aborted fetuses, umbilical cords or bone marrow. These other sources, however, have a variety of drawbacks. They are either much more difficult to obtain or these stem cells have less potential to develop into different cell types.

This helps explain why, in presidential politics and media reporting, the stem cell debate must inevitably fall along the same lines as the abortion debate. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research are assumed to be those with extreme anti-abortion views. They are the ones who oppose all abortions and probably want a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion. Those in favor of stem cell research, on this view, are those who support abortion rights and claim the rhetoric of compassion, progress and freedom. Such divisions are simple and predictable. They will not lead, however, to a better understanding of the issues at hand or to any sort of meaningful resolution of the debate.

I began to read about and study the therapeutic use of embryonic stem cells as a member of the “Christian Action Commission” of my denomination (the Reformed Church in America). My earliest inclinations about the use of embryonic stem cells might be called “cautiously accepting.” This had little to do with any real awareness of the bioethical issues and more to do with a perception of myself as someone generally open-minded and empathetic. I probably also lived with the impression that opponents of stem cell technology were the sort of absolutists concerned about a few cells frozen in liquid nitrogen, but all too eager to cut publicly funded nutrition programs for children. Above all else, the words of a colleague who suffers from a debilitating genetic disorder echoed in my mind: “If Christians are going to oppose the use of embryonic stem cells that could change my life, they had better offer some good, clear reasons, not some vague theological mumbo-jumbo!” This then could be the story of how my mind was changed, for I have come to have some deep reservations about the use of embryonic stem cells.

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research is almost always based on the imperative to protect and value human life. Human embryos–blastocysts– are destroyed in order to obtain stem cells. Obviously, human life is of great value and concern to Christians, as well as to many others. Christians are always predisposed to protect life. But Christian beliefs, especially Reformed theology, have never offered universal blanket protection to human life. Support for capital punishment, for just wars, for martyrdom, for the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross, all indicate that there are times when Christians put other concerns ahead of human life.

Those in favor of stem cell research point to the incredible benefits that could be gained. In laboratories, crippled rats with damaged spinal columns have regained mobility through stem cell treatment. Healing, lessening of suffering, concern for the body and support for the medical arts all have deep roots in Christian soil. Isn’t stem cell therapy only an obvious outgrowth from those roots? How can one possibly turn away from the potential of ending the misery caused by all sorts of conditions? But just as human life has never been an absolute value for Christians, neither do healing and relief of suffering trump all Christian concerns.

Those opposed to stem cell research tend to come off as shrill and insensitive. For example, I’ve heard attacks on two of the most visible supporters of stem cell research, actors Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox. One is a paralyzed Superman–so go the attacks–while the other is the consummate yuppie, an elfin Peter Pan who refuses to grow up, now struck with Parkinson’s disease. Such attacks are supposed to demonstrate that stem cell therapy is primarily a fountain of youth for those with an enlarged sense of entitlement and deep pockets. Instead, these attacks make the opponents of stem cell research seem cold and uncaring. They need a better response to the agonized parent who cries, “Why don’t you want my child to get better?” Does a Christian voice which attempts to talk carefully and modestly of suffering’s sometimeability to lead to redemption sound unavoidably glib? To speak to those who suffer from terrible debilitating genetic disorders takes some hardearned moral credibility. I wonder if Christians, as a group, have that kind of credibility. I would like to say to those anxious for stem cell research to ease their suffering, “We Christians are here for you. We will suffer alongside you.” I am not sure, however, that I would be listened to. I’m not sure I should be.

Questions of social justice, economics and health care are rarely brought into the debate over stem cells. This is probably because those opposed to using embryonic stem cells are generally also supporters of laissez-faire capitalism in health care. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a red meat Republican assert that the money spent on stem cell research should be used instead to provide basic health coverage for all? At the same time, it is unrealistic to demand that society “solve” the health-care crisis, much less the problem of distributive justice, before any costly and cutting-edge medical research can move forward. Still, I want to hope for better than trickle-down medicine, where what benefits the white and wealthy today may in some distant future be available to all.

To my mind, the endless abortion debate demonstrates the fruitlessness of the “when does life begin?” question. As abortion foes seem to have discovered, one can win point after point but still lose the match. Almost everyone agrees that the blastocyst, from which stem cells are collected, is a form of life that merits “respect.” But the question of its moral status–whether it is equivalent, say, to a fetus in the second month of gestation or an adult person–is unclear. Supporters of using blastocysts for stem cells frequently use the term “pre-embryos” to describe embryos less than fourteen days old. This is when implantation in the uterine wall would naturally take place and the possibility of twinning is past. However, using this as the point of demarcation, before which research may be done, has all the same problems of the contrary arguments of the opponents of stem cell research and abortion. Any clear point of demarcation seems artificial and arbitrary in the amazingly rapid yet imperceptibly gradual development from blastocyst to birth.

So why am I opposed to embryonic stem cell research, particularly when I am not especially focused on the precise status of blastocysts or the need to preserve them at all cost? The use of embryonic stem cells seems like yet another subtle but corrosive form of utilitarian arithmetic. Outcome, in this case an admittedly very positive outcome, is all that matters. Might such a positive outcome cause us to be too hasty in moving ah
ead? One need not be a Luddite to be concerned about the way that “medical breakthroughs” and “technological advances” serve as talismans that mesmerize our society. Our naïve fascination with science and our confidence in progress cause us not to even want to know about the costs, the ethical gray areas, or the casualties of progress.

“Ideology Prevails over Science in Stem Cell Debate” ran a newspaper headline about the topic. The presumption is that science itself is ideology-free, value-neutral. Simply to let science unfold as it wishes apparently implies no bias, no investment, no values. Can anyone still really believe this? Few in the scientific community would even argue it. For those who know better, to try to make public opinion points off such claims is dishonest. Science, progress, unfettered research, the claim that the ability to do something means it should be done: none of these are blindly impartial. The debate over embryonic stem cells is a debate between different ideologies, not ideologues versus scientists.

Perhaps the term “commodification” can help us pinpoint the implicit ideology of the pro-stem cell view. This term is sometimes accused of being unhelpful, over-the-top rhetoric in the stem cell debate. It tries to convey, however, a moral uneasiness about looking at blastocysts, stem cells, human bodies as commodities, raw materials, objects to be bought, sold, manipulated by science and market forces. Such an attitude, it suggests, will gradually devalue the integrity and mystery of what it means to be wholly human, body and soul. To me it sounds like the old fable of the frog in the soup pot. The water gets warmer so gradually the frog doesn’t notice until it is too late. To lose the sense of mystery, value, and integrity surrounding the human body and life just might be more negligent and injurious to society than regretfully rejecting the use of embryonic stem cells.

I find it disconcerting that we can casually talk about “surplus” embryos, “left over” from fertility treatments. I do not want to be insensitive to those who struggle with infertility nor am I frantic to protect these frozen cells at all cost. But the fact that hardly anyone seems to give these extra embryos even a second thought when undergoing fertility treatments stands as another reminder of the imprudent enthusiasm and optimism that medical breakthroughs often produce. The outcome is so desirable and wonderful that we don’t really want to think about how we get there. Even if they are “just sitting there” or have to “be disposed of anyway,” given the uncertainty and ambivalence about blastocysts, I tend to believe it would be preferable to dispose of the “extras” gently and reverently rather than use them for their stem cells.

Last February South Korean scientists announced that they had cloned human embryos and then extracted stem cells from them. This announcement drove home the point that in the near-term cloning will not be used to produce another Michael Jordan or an army of automatons. Rather, people will clone themselves in order to harvest their own stem cells from their blastocyts, thus avoiding problems with rejection by the body’s immune system. This means we would intentionally be creating blastocysts in order to destroy them for their stem cells. Isn’t the prospect of creating some form of human life for the product it can yield troubling to us? Whether we call them embryos, pre-embryos or blastocysts, do we want to view them as suppliers of parts for medical technology? “Commodification,” whatever its rhetorical drawbacks, is the term that cannot help but come to mind in such circumstances.

Are my concerns too ethereal, too filled with slippery-slope arguments, to address those who desperately wait for treatment of paralysis, diabetes, or ALS? Probably. Perhaps my less lofty goal is to tell opponents of embryonic stem cell research that aligning with strident anti-abortion forces will bring the same roadblocks and red herrings that have stalemated that debate for decades. A broader, more moderate and modest approach should be taken. To pit “life” against “compassion” guarantees an irresolvable impasse. In a political climate where nuance is disdained, however, what else can be expected?

To the supporters of embryonic stem cell research, I want to say that having reluctant reservations about the use of embryonic stem cells is not necessarily to be an antediluvian mossback who would have joined the posse to get Galileo. I don’t purport to know when life “begins.” I don’t believe, as Monty Python once spoofed, that “every sperm is sacred.” I am, however, concerned that the use of embryonic stem cells is part of a process that leads to a callousness about life, a subtle devaluation and depersonalization of human persons and our bodies.

The use of embryonic stem cells is probably not the make-or-break moment for our society. It is not enough to sway the way I will vote in the presidential election. Instead it is just another tug on an already worn and tattered cloth. I find it difficult to name that fabric plainly or precisely–life? creatureliness? stewardship? the mystery of being human? Whatever we call that fabric, I wonder how many more rips and tugs it can take.

To view the Reformed Church in America’s statement on embryonic stem cells, adopted at the General Synod of 2002, visit www.rca. org/synod/minutes/2002/action.html

Stephen Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunct professor of religion at Central College. He holds the Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is one of the pastors  of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa.  He writes regularly here on the Reformed Journal's daily blog.