I am no ethicist nor the son of an ethicist. Nonetheless, I believe that it is important that I and all other Christians try to apply the spirit, the example, and the teachings of Christ to our thinking about and to our acting upon the ethical issues of our time. One of those issues is the use of embryonic stem cells in research into possible cures for debilitating and life-threatening diseases. As I understand it, embryonic stem cells are valuable in such research because they can potentially be developed into any of the types of cells that make up the human body. The problem is that in order to harvest the stem cells the embryo must be destroyed. If, therefore, one believes that the embryo is or should be thought of as a human life, such an action is highly problematic. Should the life of a person afflicted with Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease be valued over the at least potential life embodied in the embryo? On the other hand, should the potential life contained in the embryo be valued over that of people dealing with such terrible diseases?
The issue is a very volatile one politically. The Bush administration has limited research to existing stem cell lines. The conventional wisdom is that the President will veto any legislation that significantly increases federal support for stem cell research. Public support for an increase in such research seems to be on the rise. In a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for the Civil Society Institute think tank and reported on in Medical News Today, 68% of Americans would like to see the new Congress take action to increase stem cell research. That is up from 60% in June 2004 and 63% in February 2005. Interestingly, the poll reveals that 69% of Roman Catholics and 52% of evangelical Christians support greater federal support of stem cell research. Of course, the majority can be wrong, but it is still interesting to find that, at least according to this poll, the majority of Christians hold that position.
It’s a tough call for me. It seems logical to me to at least use embryos that are created in the process of infertile couples trying to become pregnant but that that are not going to be used for that purpose. There seems no point to preserving such embryos in perpetuity; why not, then, use them for some positive purpose? Still, even as I wrote that last sentence, I found myself feeling uncomfortable at the suggestion of “using” them. I really don’t want to devalue life or potential life.
Then yesterday came some potentially very good news. Researchers at Wake Forest and Harvard Universities announced that they had been able to draw stem cells from amniotic fluid without doing any harm to the mother or the fetus and that they had successfully developed those stem cells into the cell types of several different tissues. While we are years away from knowing just how well the stem cells taken from amniotic fluid will work as developmental cells and while scientists are cautioning that they may not work as well as those taken from embryos, there still seems to me to be cause for cautious celebration. I say that for two reasons. First, any development that could lead us away from the troubling possibility of creating human embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting the stem cells seems to me a good thing. Second, any development that could lead to the curing of some of our most terrible diseases while at the same time resolving some of our most difficult ethical dilemmas is a good thing, too.
As a Christian, I want to love and respect all human life. It is hard to decide sometimes how the principle of Christian love is to be applied when, no matter what decision you make, one life has to be chosen over another. If this new development helps us to save some lives without ending another potential life, it may be a giant step for humankind.