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Three Stem Cell Questions
The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn, 2006


You 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?

[The text of the proposed amendment is available at www.cres.org/2.pdf]

The 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 soul?
     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 after born. 
     Stem cell research does not involve abortion. But if you believe that a fertilized egg is a person, you may object to research using IVF cells. One may then be required to balance (a) the good from the current practice of legally disposing about a thousand of these cells every day from in-vitro fertility clinics as medical waste with (b) research for curing what everyone would agree are actual persons. In a fire, your priority may be to rescue the one 5-year old remaining in the building over any number of undifferentiated cells in petri dishes.
     The other form of research, SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) does not use fertilized eggs. Without genetic material from both a father and a mother, this method may seem to present no parallel theological problem. The nucleus of a patient’s cell replaces the nucleus of a donor’s egg, which provides the environment for growth so that, it is hoped, harvested stem cells can be coaxed to grow into specific tissue or organ cells — for example, pancreatic tissues to produce insulin.
     Supporters consider this type of cloning to be similar to the now-routine cloning of skin tissue in graft treatment of burns. No new human being is created in a petri dish -- all the genetic material comes from the patient who is treated.
     However, those who think SCNT creates a new person through cloning find the procedure illicit. The consistent ethic of the “seamless garment” of respect for life would be violated.
     A related objection to this research is the “slippery slope” argument. It says that investigating the very processes of life in this research is the first step in blaspheming God’s created order toward the manufacture of Frankenstein monsters, or to justifying questionable means for beneficial ends. But similar objections have been raised to the study of cadavers, the use of antibiotics, vaccines, and organ transplants. 
     The president of Yale College (1795-1817), the Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817), is cited as an example of resistence to medical advance when he argued against protecting people from smallpox by vaccination: "If God had decreed from all eternity that a certain person should die of smallpox, it would be a frightful sin to avoid and annul that decree by the trick of vaccination."
     But the result has been cures, not monsters. 
     The proposed amendment increases the level of protection against misuse of medical technology and adds careful checks and balances to the research process. Strict ethical limits are imposed. For example, while there currently is no law prohibiting cloning a human being, the amendment would make even the attempt to clone a person illegal.
     Other concerns involve medical risks to egg donors and a financial market for eggs. Egg extraction has been done safely for decades and the amendment prohibits the sale of eggs for research.

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 Missourians. 
     The greatest spiritual surprise for me in this debate is the difficulty in recognizing the filters we use in discerning and telling the truth about what the current status is, what the proposed amendment says, or what the research reveals. Anti-abortion rights groups oppose the amendment in part because its passage would complicate their efforts to codify in law one religious perspective about when life begins. 

The 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?”

The 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. 

=========

NOTE

*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:

The question also involves whether the theological position is not simply
(a) that personhood begins at conception
but also that
(b) the state should recognize that personhood begins at conception.
This contrasts with
(c) the state should allow various theological positions on when personhood begins while maintaining common law (personhood begins at birth) (or maybe fudging toward viability ala Roe v Wade) for practical purposes, with each person making medical decisions on the basis of conscience, unbound by the state.

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. 

This 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