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Stem Cell Research: The Politics of Principle

2005-03-01 | by Sara [mail] | Categories: culture/news

Each year, Christians donate time and money to advance the pro-life cause. The Sanctity of Human Life week, stories of personal regret, moral arguments and medical concerns are means of spreading this message. From civil group concern for the unborn without a voice to militant individuals who bomb abortion clinics, these concerned Christians want their voices heard. Their methods are far from homogenous: while some prohibit abortion in any case, some are concerned that the constant focus on saving lives at conception and before birth takes away from the concern for life after birth. This latter group believes that skimping on welfare and other programs for mothers and children are travesties equal to the lives lost in abortion procedures.
Recently, the pro-life agenda seems to have taken a different approach by embracing a more contemporary political discussion—that of stem cell research. Many of the same arguments seem to overlap between these two subjects, mainly because of the proposed use of human embryos in this type of scientific advancement. As Fuller Theological Seminary student Peter Hough illustrates, the stem cell debate is "the abortion debate in a Star Trek uniform". But if the pro-life group has two voices, perhaps there is another side to the stem cell argument as well. And if, as David Gushee of Union University said, the issue of stem cell research will soon change human life forever, perhaps we should be well-educated to make sure we support the best choice.

Stem cells are, as David Batstone of the faith-based Sojourners magazine explains, "‘blank' cells that have the potential to develop into any type of cell in the body" ( "Macrowave: Stem Cell Politics", www.sojo.net). Scientists believe that if stem cells are harvested before they develop into specific types of cells (cardiac, nerve or kidney, for example) these cells can be used to replace damaged cells in diseased individuals. The need for heart and kidney transplants, as well as the devastating diagnoses of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, could be eliminated if this science triumphs. Advancement of this nature is encouraging to both scientists and to those living with these ailments. Stem cell research opponents are not opposed to curing disease; their fundamental problem with stem cell research lies not in its existence, but in its means of origin.
As such, not all stem cell research is under fire. Stem cells gained from donated umbilical cord and placenta blood, adult neural cells and blood marrow can be used in research without violating any moral convictions.

Stem cells can also be extracted from embryos which were created for in vitro fertilization. Of the hundreds of embryos created in the in vitro process, a maximum of four can be implanted in the womb at one time. The rest of the embryos are frozen for future use, if needed. While most pro-lifers consider these bundles of cells embryos, others prefer the term ‘pre-embryos' because they lack organs and because their cells are undifferentiated, meaning they have not formed into specific types of cells (religioustolerance.org).
Finally, stem cells can be created using somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. SCNT is a procedure in which the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with cells from an adult donor. The altered egg then produces embryonic stem cells, which can replace the flawed cells that cause disease in humans (KMBC-9, Feb 9, 2005). Because of the lack of sperm and egg union, proponents of SCNT believe these cells are not embryos. Opponents of SCNT believe that these cells were created, or cloned, for the sole purpose of research. This, of course, violates their appreciation of the sanctity of human life.

The aforementioned Gushee, an Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy, is one of those opposed to SCNT. He believes that Christians are at an important junction in history and that remaining silent about the moral implications of stem cell research is irresponsible. "One of the best things biblical faith contributes to the biotech discussion is a well-considered understanding of human weakness, finitude, and sin, and the double-edged potential of many human endeavors," Gushee said ( "A Matter of Life and Death", Christianity Today, June 2000).
Gushee's academic presence is not the only agent vying for attention. Missouri Senate Bill 160 proposes to ban all forms of human cloning in the state. The bill, sponsored by State Senator Matt Bartle, stems from his own moral objection, though not only the objection to creating human life.

"I'm going to oppose anything that involves the killing of a human embryo," Bartle explained in the KMBC-9 interview. For many pro-lifers, Bartle's stance is unarguable: as with abortion, where a human life is destroyed, stem cell research that decides the fate of a future embryo can be equated with murder. In this case, Bartle is morally opposed to the creation of what he considers embryonic cells for scientific research, specifically SCNT.
Bartle is just one of many politicians weighing in on the debate. In 2001, President Bush delivered a speech explaining his position on stem cell research and introducing the president's council to monitor stem cell research. Bush stated that he had gathered information on the subject and came up with what he deemed two essential questions to be answered: "First, are frozen embryos human life, and therefore, something precious to be protected? And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?"

After consulting doctors, religious leaders and researchers, Bush decided to permit the use of an existing 60 lines of stem cells created from previously destroyed embryos. He also designated $250 million for research on umbilical cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells. Federally-funded future research on human embryos, however, was ruled unethical and unnecessary.
While Bush's plan seems to meld science and religious beliefs effortlessly, the reality is that the 60 previous lines he designated are rapidly dwindling into unusable material. Data gathered by the Family Research Council suggests that only 11 of the original lines are still usable; the rest have either been destroyed in scientific processes, have died or have converted to a specific type of human cell (www.religioustolerance.org).

Additionally, adult stem cells are not as versatile as those taken from embryos (Batstone). Adult stem cells are limited because they have already developed into type-specific cells. Embryonic stem cells can be manipulated to form kidney, heart, nerve and other cells.
Christian author Bob Smietana resists Bush's solution. "Full-scale stem cell research and the manufacturing of cures would mean using not just "spare embryos" but millions of new embryos created specifically for those purposes" ( "Playing Doctor, Playing God", Sojourners).

Groups like the Center for Bioethics and Human Diginity (CBHD), however, think the Bush plan is a good one. According to Daniel McConchie, a member of the CBHD, using adult stem cells is a viable solution for five reasons. First, an adult who is implanted with embryonic stem cells would have to take immunosuppressant drugs, such as those used after an organ transplant, for life. Using the same adult's own retooled stem cells would not require the same treatment. Second, no cloning is required—not even the cloning of one's own cells. Third, no human eggs are harmed. Fourth, adult stem cells are already specialized for specific functions in the body; embryonic cells must undergo specialization. Fifth, using adult stem cells eliminates the possibility for moral argument. ( "Adult Stem Cells-3, Embryonic Stem Cells-0", www.cbhd.org)
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also recognizes the value of using adult stem cells. "Certain kinds of adult stem cells seem to have the ability to differentiate into a number of different cell types, given the right conditions," explains their website (stemcells.nih.gov).

And, according to some, using embryonic stem cells to treat disease is not only immoral, it also has potentially lethal implications for the recipient. "Embryonic stem cells may actually provoke an immune reaction in patients [and] form tumors inside a patient's body" (CT Editorial, September 2001).
But in spite of this information, the decision to choose adult stem cells over embryonic ones is not simple. The NIH recognizes that even the task of finding adult stem cells is a difficult one. Scientists are not certain where adult stem cells live, but believe they are "thought to reside in a specific area of each tissue where they may remain quiescent [non-dividing] for many years until they are activated by disease or tissue injury". Because of the camouflaging nature of adult stem cells, researchers must first undergo the difficult process of identifying them.

The fact is, without necessary research performed on the many different types of stem cells, scientists will know neither the origin of nor the potential for curing any type of stem cell has. But what if moral and scientific concerns could be met simultaneously? What if embryonic stem cell research could be performed morally? As Jack Kessler writes, "The moral obligation to help other human beings is a concept universal to virtually all religions, and the entire focus of stem-cell biology is on alleviating human suffering and disease" (Chicago Tribune editorial, June 13, 2004).
Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (Utah) relayed a similar message regarding embryos created through in vitro fertilization. "Why shouldn't embryos slated for destruction be used for the benefit of humankind?"

Educators Michael Meyer and Lawrence Nelson of Santa Clara University believe that human embryos can be both respected and researched. They recommend that scientists follow a "morally justifiable" plan when working with embryos, including the following steps:
1. Use embryos only if the research goals cannot be met using other methods.

2. Avoid considering embryos as property and cease buying and selling them. (In this case, parents involved with in vitro fertilization would donate their unused embryos to science. According to some, this is similar to a family donating the organs of a deceased loved one).
3. Obtain only the minimum number of embryos required to achieve research goals.

( "Human Embryo Experimentation Can Be Morally Justifiable")
The question of morality in stem cell research is a complicated one, as demonstrated by both sides' passionate arguments. On one hand, using embryos in research poses a threat to the potential for future life. On the other, refusing to investigate all avenues threatens the potential for a better life now.

If abortion and stem cell research are linked in the Christian mind, perhaps we should discover the pro-life solutions set forth by more progressive voices. Supporting pro-life causes from a purely political point of view can be dangerously one-sided. As pro-lifer Tom Allio explains, "In an election year the abortion issue is used in such a targeted way to solidify one's base, whether it's pro-life or pro-choice. That just doesn't do justice to the problem" (quoted in "No Place to Stand", Sojourners, Heidi Schlumpf, 2004).
Kevin Clarke of the social justice e-zine Salt of the Earth agrees. "By focusing only on whether abortion is legal or not, we ignore all the other cultural structures that drive women toward abortion…We have to develop a way to talk about this issue where we're not at each other's throats." (Sojourners).

One way of moving the focus is to remember that real lives are at stake: those of the patients awaiting a potential cure and, for those who believe SCNT creates a new life, that of the unborn. Conceivably the most relevant voices in this debate are those whose lives are slated to be changed by stem cell research, those who are awaiting a cure.
"One day he walked out of the kitchen, sat down on the couch and never got up, because he had forgotten how to use his legs," LaNeal Skinner said of her husband's early onset Alzheimer's ( "Debating Life, Morality, Hope", Kansas City Star, February 11, 2005). Skinner, a supporter of stem cell research, believes these cells may have saved her husband's life.

Pat Borland, whose mother had Alzheimer's, also knows the devastation of losing a loved one to this disease. Borland hopes for a cure, but not one gained through SCNT. "I don't believe that God wants us to play him. We shouldn't take a life to help our own. I know Mom wouldn't want that," Borland said (KC Star).
Perhaps it is not too late to change the focus of the stem cell debate. If it is fated to endure as the abortion debate has, we must try. Both supporting and opposing voices of stem cell research have pro-life goals in mind. Focusing on these goals, instead of on political partisanship, may reduce the amount of negative energy surrounding the debate. And it may pave the way for a cure.



Stem cell research is not altogether. Adult stem cell research has been said to cure several disease.

Robin Jones [Visitor]  2006-12-04 @ 10:01

Hello my name is Peter Cha and I’m currently working on my english project regarding stem cell research. I can see how Christians can have strong objections to this research but I believe that embryonic stem cells are not really a ‘living thing’. I’m an advocate of this stem cell research because I believe that it has the potential to save many lives and it isn’t ethically wrong as many would put it. I believe that rather than letting the stem cells to end up in trash can, it would be much better to utilize them to full extent to help save lives.

Peter Cha [Visitor]  2006-12-04 @ 21:59

I’m a sophmore in high school, and im doing a debate on stem cell research. and im FULLY OPPOSED to it. IT IS MURDER. whats the difference between abortion and murder, if AT CONCEPTION there is a soul, a INNOCENT life. Yes, there are pro’s and con’s. But, also if we continue to save people with diseases, the world will end up being OVER POPULATED, and our natural resources will diminish. [and come on people, THAT WONT BE GOOD.]

Natalie [Visitor]  2007-01-30 @ 16:45

At first I wasn’t convinced, but then I saw that you were using capital letters, so now I agree with you.

So we should let the terminally ill people just die so we don’t get too overpopulated, but we have to make sure every fertilized egg is allowed to be born?

[Member]  http://www.brendoman.com/2007-01-30 @ 19:46

THANK YOU (ha) Danny for saying that. So which is it, Natalie? Did you even read the article?

As such, not all stem cell research is under fire. Stem cells gained from donated umbilical cord and placenta blood, adult neural cells and blood marrow can be used in research without violating any moral convictions.


But, also if we continue to save people with diseases, the world will end up being OVER POPULATED, and our natural resources will diminish.

Come back and say that when one of your loved ones is dealing with a terminal illness that could possibly be cured. And FYI, our natural resources are already diminishing quite rapidly. I don’t think those pesky people who are being cured of diseases are the problem. But maybe you should write to Al Gore telling him he’s got it all wrong.

brendoman [Visitor]  http://brendoman.com2007-01-31 @ 05:11

I am an advocate for stem cell research. I don’t believe a group of 100 or less cells can be called a “living being” when a fully grown human is comprised of trillions of cells. Embryonic Stem Cell research is a field with much potential and should be explored. I especially think that at least left over embryos from IVF should be harvested as what is left for them except an undignified “death” down the trash can? To all you “pro-lifers” out there, get a grip and don’t let your judgment be clouded by your attitude that all living things have a right to life. This is true to a degree, but when you mix it with arguments such as “the world will become over-populated if we cure sick people", one must scratch their head in confusion over the contradiction.

Sarah Surace [Visitor]  2007-08-12 @ 02:55

I know I’m posting on something ancient, but just wanted to put this in…

Natalie, I think you’re taking a number of things for granted here.

-Is there actually such thing as a soul?
-Do humans have such a soul as part of their makeup?
-Is this soul present at conception?
-When _exactly_ does conception occur?
-If a human soul does exist, when, if ever is it innocent? When does its innocence cease?
-How does this general innocence of a soul relate to the justifiability of murder?

I think one problem here is, point one is a superstitious belief with no reasonable evidence. “Near-death-experiences” and fuzzy feelings seem to be on par for the course. But without that, the house of cards comes crumbling down.

There’s a real crazy part to this. The morality you have advanced here would yield no meaningful ethical mechanism for distinguishing between the suffering of a fully grown man, and 150 cells. With a soul out the window (or at least, highly dubious and unproven) such an ability to make this distinction flies in the face of common sense.

So one question is this: what is the evidence for the existence of the soul?

Brendon [Visitor]http://www.techfreak.net2008-02-05 @ 16:27

meu nome e leticia tenho 15 anos sou de ji-parana estudo no calevo dr jose otno de froitas so muito estudiosa

leticia dias da silva [Visitor]2010-09-06 @ 14:01

Stem cells are cells found in all multi cellular organisms. Adult stem cell treatments have been successfully used for many years to treat leukemia and related bone/blood cancers through bone marrow transplants. Adult stem cells are also used in veterinary medicine to treat tendon and ligament injuries in horses.

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