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Stem Cell Research: A Moral Assessment
by William E. Cripe, Sr.
Bill Cripe and his wife, Barbara, live in Waterville, Maine, and are the parents of three grown children. Cripe holds degrees from Dekalb Community College, Georgia State University, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He currently maintains ASCP (American Society of Clinical Pathologists) certification as a registered Medical Technologist. Since 1990 Bill has served as senior pastor at Faith Evangelical Free Church in Waterville. His ordination credentials are with the EFCA.
For many years Bill wrote a column for Central Maine Newspapers. He is a winner of four Amy Foundation Writing Awards, and has been selected by the Amy Foundation as one of twenty syndicated columnists to write a bimonthly column posted on the internet for media access. Check this at http://www.amyfound.org/articles/wec13.html
Bill Cripe was designated an AIIA Resource Associate for Social Issues in April of 2000.
One of the most exciting discoveries of modern medicine made headlines in 1998 when researchers successfully grew “stem cells” which had been isolated from human embryos, i.e. fertilized eggs.
So what’s all the excitement about?
Many diseases are the result of faulty cells in various organs. These illnesses could potentially be cured by growing new cells of the same type and transplanting them into the diseased organ. For example, one type of diabetes occurs when special cells in the pancreas cease their production of insulin. Using stem cells, new insulin producing cells could be grown, replacing the faulty ones, thus curing the diabetic.
What about paralysis? Can nerve cells be repaired?
Recently, researchers were able to transplant stem cells into a paralyzed mouse. The stem cells reproduced healthy nerve cells and the mouse did experience improved mobility. You can see why such research is so exciting. But it is not without controversy.
Exactly what is a stem cell?
When baking a cake, one follows a recipe, combining flour, sugar, yeast, chocolate, baking powder, and eggs. Then you bake it in the oven. You end up with a cake. But suppose you were an Almighty God who could do the fantastic. Instead of concocting a cake by adding many different ingredients, you make a single, special egg that, when placed in the heat of an oven, has the ability to transform itself into all of the various ingredients necessary to make a delicious cake. In terms of the wonder of God’s creation in the human body, the “cake” is the body, and the “special egg” is a stem cell.
All stem cells, however, are not created equal. Some (those derived from human embryos) have the ability to develop into every type of cell needed to make a person. Another type of stem cell, though somewhat limited, can only develop into certain types of cells, e.g. nerve, brain, and spinal cord cells, but not bone or pancreatic cells.
Because of the boundless possibilities for therapeutic use, embryonic stem cells are preferred. The controversy emerges due to the fact that one life – an embryo, or aborted baby – must be destroyed in order to help another.
Is there a morally clear assessment of such research?
Yes. If life indeed begins at conception, then the moment a woman’s egg is fertilized by a man’s sperm, that embryo bears the Imago Dei – the image of the Creator, and must be protected despite any benefits derived by sacrificing the early life. The moral and theological implications are staggering. Those committed to the authority of God’s Word revealed in the Bible must hold a position which honors the sanctity of all human life – even life which is not yet recognizable as human, i.e. an embryo.
Does such a morally clear perspective prohibit the exciting possibilities for continued therapeutic advances?
Where such research involves stem cells derived from embryos and aborted babies, yes. But current research is advancing daily and just recently stem cells have been harvested from the brains of the deceased, as well as from various locations in living subjects. While these sorts of stem cells are more limited in their ability to differentiate, there are therapeutic advantages in using stem cells from a living person for that person’s own use. For example, issues of immunologic rejection are of no concern if one is being treated with his own cells.
Because God gave us the intellectual capacity to delve into such marvelous areas of His handiwork, we must proceed reverently, and ever so prayerfully, realizing that our technology has often far outpaced our theology. Moral dilemmas will continue to emerge, but if we set our face to honoring God, He will show us truth that honors Him. And that kind of truth will not equivocate. It will indeed liberate.