stem cell research

Abortion - Part 4--Stem Cell Research

As I continue my series of blogs on abortion, I realize that some people may be startled by the title. I chose this not so much to be provocative, though all my friends know I don't shy away from that designation. I actually chose the title because it is my hope that if enough people read the blogs and discuss the material, then maybe we can have an impact on the debate over abortion. With the use of both modern scientific studies and theological reflection, I have already offered support for altering the foundational terminology used in the abortion debate, specifically changing the language from human life to human person.

I noted in the second part of this series that rights append to an individual human person, not to human life in general. However, prior to day 14 we have human life that has not yet been individuated. We do not have a human person. Simply put, that means interrupting the embryological development prior to day 14 is not equivalent to taking the life of a human being and should not be construed as tantamount to abortion. Of particular note is the observation (also in part 2) that viability is not required for individuation or personhood. Far from silencing the anti-abortion lobby, I believe their voice and argument are augmented by this distinction, but their case cannot be made until day 14.

Today, I would like to examine the implication of this argument for embryonic stem cell research. No one questions the overall goals of scientists who pursue such studies. While the outcome of all investigative science is uncertain, the use of embryonic stem cells holds out significant hope for medical breakthrough on a whole host of diseases. This is due in part to the fact that embryonic stem cells are unspecialized and, through a process known as cell division, can renew themselves even after long periods of inactivity. Also, precisely because they are unspecialized, they can be coaxed to develop into a number of different cells--a process known as differentiation. For example, a stem cell could be made to develop into a brain cell or a red blood cell.

It is true that scientists can also avail themselves of adult stem cell research that does not result in the destruction of an embryo. Clearly, scientists should not ignore of this area of study. However, adult stem cells do not possess all the same capacities of embryonic stem cells. Although adult stem cells are thought to be undifferentiated, when removed from the body, their ability to divide is limited. This makes it difficult for scientists to generate large quantities of cells, thereby limiting their research. Both embryonic and adult stem cells offer hope for medical treatment and possible cures, and both should be part of the research process.

The primary opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that it necessitates the destruction of the embryo. I acknowledge that reality. However, what emerges from the discussion in this series of blogs, is that the real issue should be when the stem cells are removed and the embryo destroyed. In order to have stem cells with the highest potential research value, scientists seek to acquire them between 5 and 7 days following fertilization. This is long before individuation and the creation of the human soul. That being the case, stem cell research cannot be equated with abortion. This mutes any moral objection, since a human being is not sacrificed in the pursuit of scientific research.

If one grants the argumentation so far regarding individuation and ensoulment, it is still possible that one more objection might be made raised against embryonic stem cell research. That objection would arise from a modified contraceptive perspective. Since the contraceptive issue is even more intimately connected with the primary subject of the next blog, I will reserve my argument until then.

U.S. Judge rules against Obama stem cell policy

Yesterday federal district Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruled that President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research violated a federal ban on the destruction of such embryos. Whether or not the ruling by Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth is good law, is for legal scholars and appellate judges to determine. It is rooted in the Dickey-Wicker amendment (an appropriations bill rider) that Congress passed in 1995 and continues to renew annually. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos that will be destroyed.

The underlying problem is the amendment itself, and how it came to be law and continues to be renewed. Stem cell research has become another missile in the abortion war. Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research due to the destruction of the embryos which they consider to be tantamount to abortion. At issue is a serious lack of scientific, philosophical and even theological knowledge. On this front, even some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, widely miss the mark. To be fair, there has been little attempt to address the real issue of human life and the embryo.

Theology is a proper discipline in its own right. However, when a theological subject intersects with other disciplines, it must consider what the empirical sciences contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States today, many people seem to think that their "faith," whatever it is, trumps everything else. This explains the relatively uninformed (at least unenlightened) approach to evolution among those who want the Biblical myth of creation taught as a competing understanding of creation.

In the case of stem cell research, a strong argument can be made for the fact the human life begins at conception. Nonetheless, the real issue should be personhood, and that simply cannot be claimed to exist at conception. This is not simply a semantic distinction. Scientifically, we know that a fertilized egg can split into identical twins up to 14 days after conception, on rare occasions even later. That would suggest that from day 14 both medical science and theology can agree that the embryo is a human person, at least insofar as the process of individuation is complete. Prior to that time there may be human life, but there is no sustaining argument for calling it a person. This should raise some question about the wisdom and even legitimacy of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, since laws should be enacted to protect persons, not some ethereal concept of human life.

Since scientists want the stem cells much earlier than 14 days, with 5-7 days being optimal, the process of individuation should silence the anti-abortion lobby. But this is the United States, and at this time in our history, people prefer to remain in the dark regarding real science. Perhaps part of the blame rests with elements within the government that have advanced what has been called "junk science" to the fore. Science and religion are not, or should not be, competing disciplines. It is possible for them to work together in the areas of human life where they intersect. For now, however, we are likely to continue to be led by people who refuse to let die a now tired cliché: "My mind's made up--don't confuse me with the facts."