Stem Cell Questions
The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn, 2006
cannot understand religion if you exclude the valorization of life and
passion for healing. Think about * the many hospitals were founded by churches,
* the ministry of Jesus with the sick, * the medicine Buddha, * the Navajo
medicine man, or * the cure which is the Qur’an itself in Islam.
One way or another, the central concern of faith is salvation, and
the very term in English is derived from the Latin roots related to “health.”
Here are three religious questions in the discussion about the sanctity of life and early stem cell research for therapies and cures.
1. When does life begin?
2. What is the promise of such research for pastoral care?
3. How can Americans can respect every faith’s opinions on this issue?
first question arises from concern over killing helpless human beings.
Every faith proscribes murder. It is true that this research works with
human cells — a skin cell or an ovum. Are these human cells human persons?
To use theological language, when does a fertilized egg become a human
No scientist can tell you, and theologians disagree. No biological test is possible to resolve this issue of faith.
* One view is that “ensoulment” occurs at the moment of fertilization with the fusion of sperm and egg.
The Missouri Catholic Conference believes that the research involves “cloned human beings” and says that “no human life, at any stage of its development, may ever be taken for the sake of someone else’s gain. Some evangelical and other Christians share this view.
* Others say ensoulment could not happen until after the possibility of twinning has passed, about 14 days after conception; otherwise, the soul could be split in two or one of the twins would get the soul and other would have no soul.
* Others say it is when implantation in the womb occurs because this is the trigger to differentiate early stem cells into various distinct tissues.
* St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, said hominization occurred at quickening — thought to be about 40 days after conception. This was the common Catholic view until 1869 when Pope Pius IX decreed that life begins at “conception.”
* Dante thought it was when the brain structures are developed.
* Common law and most traditions afford rights and recognize personhood at birth.
In Roe v Wade,
the Supreme Court did not answer the theological question, but took a practical
approach. It said that the state’s interest in pregnancy increases after
the first trimester. It established viability as the point at which the
state may restrict or proscribe abortion. English and US common law recognizes
personhood at birth, and most parents name and register their children
The issue before
the voters is much simpler than these and other theological issues. We
are not voting on when life begins. We are voting whether responsible researchers
will be protected from those who would make them criminals, along with
doctors who would prescribe resulting cures to their patients, and even
jail the patients accepting such cures. We are voting on whether research
and cures legal and available in other states will remain available to
second question is, “What is the promise of such research? -- and what
religious leaders support it?
This is an urgent religious question because, as I mentioned, healing is a central concern for people of faith. The possible cures for Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, sickle cell, ALS. multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, spinal chord injuries, diabetes, and many other conditions inspire religious attention and support.
It is not surprising that this Missouri issue is being discussed widely and intensely in religious circles. Episcopal priest and former Senator Jack Danforth, an opponent of abortion, enthusiastically endorses stem cell research because of its potential for healing actual human beings. Joining him are Methodist minister, former mayor and now Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, and clergy of many other Christian traditions. The Jewish leadership, the rabbinical association of Kansas City, unanimously supports the proposal. Local Buddhists and Muslim leaders feel pursuing such cures is not only moral but obligatory.
The Bible commands, "Heal the sick."
A pastor put it to me this way, as could many of the hospital chaplains I know, concerned with the suffering they see: “Would Jesus condemn an accident victim to a wheelchair forever if a cure were available?”
third question is, “How can people of diverse faiths resolve their differences
in a religiously pluralistic society?” How do we resolve the claims of
those who believe it is a religious obligation to pursue cures through
this research with the religious conviction that such research is immoral?
An answer arises from the respect we offer each religion to set standards for its own members but not use the force of law to impose them on the rest of us. For example, the Catholic Church prohibits contraception, but others are free to follow our conscience. We do not allow Orthodox Jews to keep others from eating pork, or Muslims to make others abstain from a glass of wine with dinner, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses to prevent others from having blood transfusions. We distinguish sectarian views about morality from legal requirements that bind us all.
Honoring the faith of every American is critical to our practice of freedom of religion. Both those who object to this research for cures and those who embrace it deserve praise for thoughtful and honest debate. I have consulted with sincere folks on both sides in preparing this essay.
Each person should be at liberty to practice one’s faith without governmental interference. Those whose faith compels them to fulfill the healing models of their traditions should not be restrained by others whose faith rightly governs their own lives but should not be imposed on others. No person should be forced to accept a cure obtained through techniques objectionable by one’s faith, but no person should be deprived of them because someone else’s faith cannot accept them.
A YES vote protects the free exercise of religion for everyone. A NO vote prohibits those whose faith obliges them to work for cures through scientific advances. The proposed amendment assures Missourians that no sectarian theology may be imposed to prohibit research for cures available in other states.*
While those of various faiths may differ in how to achieve medical advances, the message of healing found within the sundry traditions charge us as spiritual beings to care for one another as a sacred duty.
*Before detailing the argument logically, it is useful to note that the public debate is more emotional than rational. Emotional arguments -- in the opponents words -- about killing innocent babies -- are minimized here, and rational arguments instead employed.
To those who say that passage of Amendment 2 imposes a a particular theological perspective on everyone, I reply:
question also involves whether the theological position is not simply
I think the solution offered works for (a) but not for (b) which is unstated in the argument as I hear it (so much is unstated which is why there is so much talking past each other). The reason that (a) and (c) are compatible is because each religion is free to decide its case for its own members without imposing on others; and each person is free to accept or refrain from cures developed from the disputed research.
Obviously (b) does not work for a pluralistic society because one theology is imposed on those who disagree.
The logical problem is related to the argument in the abortion issue. If you begin the argument with the assumption that the state must protect persons from murder, and that the fertilized egg is a person, you have no place to go in argument except to shout. The reasoning becomes circular, or begs the question of when personhood begins.
If someone defends the right of a woman in an extreme situation to choose abortion, your response is that she is committing murder because she is killing a person because a fertilized egg is a person.
is really no argument but rather the circular restatement of a position
and begs the question of when a cell becomes a person.
The text of the proposed amendment is available at www.cres.org/2.pdf