Embryonic Stem Cell Research:

Moral, Biblical and Legal Considerations

Regarding the Treatment and Disposal of Early Human Life

 

The Controversy:

 

Embryonic stem cells are early forms of human life. At this stage the cells have the ability to divide indefinitely, while maintaining their stem cell identity. These cells are called stem cells because they are the source of every kind of tissue present in the human body. Many scientists, ethicists and medical doctors believe these cells hold great promise in research. They argue that  even though the embryo is destroyed, when the stem cells are extracted, that great good can come out of this research. Many scientists who destroy embryos for their research believe that one day these embryos might provide cures for such afflictions as cancer, heart disease, Parkinsons, and Alzheimers. Those who support this type of research also argue that the study of embryonic stem cells can offer valuable insights into human development at this early stage of life, and cell specialization ie: why different stem cells develop into specific tissues throughout the human body.

 

Pro life ethicists, doctors, and other concerned Christians argue that to destroy a human embryo for the purposes of research is to commit murder. They argue that any good that comes out of this research is nullified by the fact that a human being was destroyed in the process. Pro life Christians believe that human life is made in the image of God. As such, human life must be protected and treated with dignity from conception until natural death. Many Christians who understand this issue, also argue that many options for ethical research are available to the scientific community. Pluripotent stem cells are available in the placenta and umbilical cord blood. Adult stem cells are also available from skin and bone marrow. In some ways these sources may prove to be even more promising than embryonic stem cell research, as the use of one’s own stem cell bypasses the possibility of tissue rejection. Some Parkinson’s patients who have allowed themselves to be injected with fetal and embryonic tissue, suffered catastrophic consequences when their bodies either had an immune reaction and rejected the foreign material, or else the fetal tissue started dramatically overproducing, resulting in permanent morbidity of the Parkinson’s sufferer.[i]  Pro life Christians would argue, why not put the limited resources of the scientific community towards these ethical and promising lines of research, rather than pursuing a controversial form of research that always results in the suffering and death of human embryos?

 

Government Responses:

 


While most of society and the Christian church remains apathetic and unaware of the issues related to embryonic stem cell research, the pro life community has done an excellent job in raising the issue. In spite of small numbers and limited resources, the pro life community forced the legislative bodies and media of the industrialized world to deal with the ethical ramifications of embryonic stem cell research. For the purposes of this paper we will look at the United Kingdom, the United States and the Canadian government’s responses to the issue of how far one should go in the research and destruction of human embryos.

 

United Kingdom:

 

The United Kingdom’s treatment of the human embryo is indeed the most appalling. While Great Britain has tried to put an ethical face on their research with various regulations, ie: the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, the sad fact remains that the UK is the only industrialized nation on the planet that allows not only the destruction of human embryos, but also embryonic cloning. On February 27, 2002 the British House of Lord’s ruled that the cloning of human embryos could proceed, provided that they are not allowed to develop past the 14th day of life. In Great Britain a cloned embryo must be destroyed as soon as it reaches its 14th day of existence, lest it starts looking too much like a baby.

 

The reason why British scientists wanted to start researching on cloned human embryos is because these embryos could have a patient’s own DNA inserted into them. This would circumvent the problem of tissue rejection, that is posed by implanting material from human embryos that are not cloned into a patient’s body. In spite of the possibility of scientific advancement and medical benefit, a great number of people are uneasy with Great Britain’s journey into the brave new world of cloning. The Council of Europe, while having no problem with abortion per say, got queasy with the idea of creating little human beings with the sole purpose of killing them for research. In the preamble to their 1998 Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine: Additional Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings declared, “that the instrumentalisation of human beings through the deliberate creation of genetically identical human beings is contrary to human dignity and thus constitutes a misuse of biology and medicine.” Article 18:2, of the 1997 European Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine states “The creation of human embryos for research purposes is prohibited.”[ii] What was Great Britain’s response to the revulsion of their European cousins at the idea of embryonic cloning? Well, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford and chairman of the Lord’s committee replied,

No avenue of research should be blocked off at this stage.”[iii] Indeed the infamous, SS. Doctor, Joseph Mengele, could not have said it better.

  

Canada:

 

While the Canadian government is not yet comfortable with following Great Britain’s example of cloning human embryos for the purpose of destroying them through research; they have none the less travelled a long way down the path of destroying human embryonic life. On March. 4/ 2002, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the federal funding agency for health research, released their guidelines on embryonic stem cell research. While placing much emphasis on the need to balance the needs of research with ethics, the reality of the report is that it failed miserably in its goal to produce an acceptable ethical framework for Canadian scientists work in.

 


While the report did prohibit cloning and the production of human embryos solely for the purposes of research, still many tiny human lives will be lost as Canada implements the guidelines created by the CIHR. In allowing the destruction of embryonic human life to proceed with federal funding, the CIHR tried to place a number of restrictions on what type of lives are to be

destroyed. Canadian research is to be limited to embryos created through in vitro fertilization, which are no longer wanted for reproductive purposes. There must be free and informed consent given by the gamete providers for the research use of the embryos. Embryo providers have an unconditional right to withdraw their consent at any time, until an anonymized stem cell line is created. There can be no direct or indirect financial incentives provided for embryo donation. Embryos can only be destroyed up to the 14th day of life. In addition to allowing for the destruction of human embryos, the CIHR announced that they would also provide federal funding for the research of fetal tissue.[iv]

 

While trying to appear ethical, by placing various restrictions on the circumstances in which human embryos can be destroyed, the sad reality is that Canada’s federal funds can be used to destroy human embryos at all!  The reality is that once the murder of one class of innocent human beings is condoned, than you really aren’t any better than a group who condones the destruction of 2, 3 or more classes of human beings. Canada’s national pro-life groups issued well reasoned statements criticizing the CIHR guidelines. To their credit they have also offered credible alternatives to destructive embryonic stem cell research[v].

 

Hitler’s Germany tried to create a regulated framework in which human beings could be destroyed. While standing trial in Nuremberg for crimes against humanity, Dr. Karl Brandt,  Major General Reich Commissioner for Health and Sanitation, is quoted as saying, that the euthanasia of children was to be “kept in a very narrow scope, and cover only the most serious cases.” The regulation was meticulous; three medical “experts” had to give their unanimous approval, based on medical criteria, before the disabled child could be put to death.[vi] Of course we now know that Germany’s medical killing got a little out of hand. In the space of three years, Germany progressed from the panel of “experts” approving the killing of each individual child, to a doctor on a ramp randomly selecting hundreds of Jews, Gypsies and non conformists for extermination in Auschwitz’s gas chambers every few minutes. Historically, Canada has already failed in it’s attempt to regulate the killing of children by abortion. In 1968, child killing was only allowed in Canada, if a panel of “experts” on a hospital board deemed that the abortion was necessary for the mother’s health. Today, a woman can kill her baby right up to birth for any and every reason. It will be interesting to see where our “regulated” killing of human embryos and subsequent experiments take us.

 

 

The United States:

 


Out of the three countries studied in this paper, The United States of America’s position on embryonic stem cell research, showed the most sensitivity to the concerns expressed by the pro life community. Indeed, the writer could find no evidence that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research or the British House of Lords, even bothered to ask for the opinions of pro life clergy or medical experts, before embarking on their decisions to sanction and fund the destruction, and in Great Britain’s case, the cloning of human embryos. While the Bush administration has made some serious compromises that should concern pro life Christians, regarding the sanctioning and funding of research on already dead human embryos; this writer recognizes that the Bush administration actively sought the input of a number of pro life groups and that this input is reflected (albeit imperfectly) in America’s current treatment of the human embryo.

 

After extensive consultation with religious leaders, scientists and other experts from both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate, the Bush administration delivered on August 9, 2001, what could be best described as a compromise. In spite of intense lobbying and pressure from the pro embryonic research side, the Bush administration rejected their demands that researchers be allowed to use federal funds to destroy embryonic human beings. In rejecting the pro embryonic research lobby’s demands to allow this destructive type of research, the President said, “I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”

 

While this above mentioned statement from President Bush reflects a huge improvement over CIHR president, Dr. Bernstein’s approach of “ethical?” killing, and the Bishop of Oxford’s Richard Harries’, belief that embryonic cloning is ok;  there is still work to be done in America if the human embryo is to be accorded the dignity that has been bestowed upon it by God. While President Bush refused to cross the line that Canada and England chose to cross, that of killing embryos for research, he still may have set America up for a great fall. In listening to some of America’s scientists, the President sought a compromise that may keep both pro death researchers and pro life voters happy. He allowed federal funds to be used for research on embryos that have already been destroyed. “Leading scientists tell me research on these sixty lines has great promise that could lead to breakthrough therapies and cures. This allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life.”[vii]

 

Unfortunately the President did cross one line. By funding research on embryos that have already been murdered, the President of the United States has cheapened the value of those who have already been killed in the name of embryonic research. Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the Traditional Values Coalition sums it up the most succinctly, “We are already dealing with the grisly baby body parts industry, involving abortion clinics marketing the remains of aborted babies to researchers. We must not continue this slide into Nazism by deliberately creating life to kill it. This is immoral and must be condemned.” Sadly, President Bush may have erred greatly by even giving the appearance of legitimacy to those who destroyed the sixty embryos that are now destined to exist in perpetuity for the purposes of research.   


The Biblical Solution:

 

We know from scripture that God is the creator and giver of life. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” Gen 1:27. With this understanding, believers must hold up the prophetic standard that human life is not ours to treat as a commodity. We cannot arbitrarily decide which life is worthy to keep and which life should be destroyed. To participate in or sanction such practices is rebellion against the Almighty, and those who do such things bring judgement upon themselves; “ you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him,”I Jn 3:15.

 

As believers we must seek justice for the weak and the oppressed. “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another,” Zch 7:9. We are not to shed innocent blood or do harm to the widows and fatherless, “Thus saith the LORD; Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the one being robbed out of the hand of his oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place,” Jer 22:3. Certainly, the writer would argue that the unwanted human embryo is the ultimate orphan. Neither the father nor the mother has any use for him or her, so off it goes to be  discarded or used in research.

 

When we are confronted with the impending murder of a fellow human being, we are to do what we can to deliver the victim from his or her impending death. “Rescue those being taken towards death, hold back those staggering towards slaughter. If we say we did not know, does not he who ways the heart perceive it?” Prov 24:11, 12. For those who wish to be followers of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we must be willing to love our unborn neighbour and the tiny human embryo as we do our selves. Even if you can’t see them or witness their suffering, they are part of the human race; therefore they are our neighbours. “Love your neighbour as your self,” Matt 22:39. 

 

Part of loving our unborn neighbour, is to seek the same legal protection for them that is afforded to us. It is appropriate that we advocate for criminal sanctions to be levied against the mad scientist who dissects a human fetus or splits a tiny embryo that is comparable to what a murderer of a child in a school yard would receive. We must also address the sins of in vitro fertilisation and chemical birth control. More embryonic children are destroyed by birth control than by embryonic stem cell research. If it wasn’t for the church’s and society’s abandonment of viewing God as the giver of life, we wouldn’t even have to address the issue of embryonic stem cell research today.

 

Sincerely: Bill Whatcott

Executive Director: Christian Truth Activists 

 

Email Bill Whatcott

 




[i].T. Okarma, (Geron Corporation), AAAS Public Forum on Stem Cell Research Issues,

August 25/ 1999

[ii]. Donal O’Mathuna, A Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity Paper, Cloning and Stem Cell Research, Wrong Motives on Both Sides of the Atlantic, Fall 2000 issue of Dignity

[iii].Britain to allow scientists to clone human embryos, National Post, February 28/ 2002

 

4. CIHR Guidelines on Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Research, President’s Address - National Press Theatre, March. 4/ 2002

5. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Briefing Notes, Human Stem Cell Research,

February. 19/ 2002

Lifesite, Stem Cell News & Resources,  http://lifesite.net/features/stemcellembryo/index.html

 6. The Nazi Doctors, Medical killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Robert Jay Lifton,

Basic Books, 1986

7. Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research, President George W. Bush, August. 9, 2001

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