Senators and scientists debated stem cell research last Wednesday with one eye on science and another on scripture.
“At many points in our history, religion and science have intersected,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee.
“And at every point, we have paused to measure our morality and the ancient lessons of religion against our science and the new frontiers we explore,” said Harkin, a Catholic.
Though the word “Christianity” was largely if not completely absent from C-SPAN’s broadcast of the hearing, that tradition’s scriptures were quoted and referenced.
First to offer testimony were four senators.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a Mormon, said he supported federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, with certain guidelines in place.
“Over many months I devoted hours of study to this important issue, reflecting on my spiritual teachings, the law and science, and the ethical issues presented by embryonic stem cell research,” he said.
Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a Presbyterian, said, “What we ultimately decide is going to be colored on our own spiritual beliefs, on our own moral beliefs, on what experience we have had.”
While Frist stated his support of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, he emphasized the need for a comprehensive, ethical framework which will respect “the moral significance of the human embryo.”
“And that’s based on spiritual values, moral values, religious values and the medical view I have,” Frist said.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said the debate centered on the basic question, “Is it a life? Or is it a mere piece of property to be disposed of as its master chooses?”
The word “master” would have been out of place if it weren’t for Christ’s parables and the other scriptural references that followed.
Referring to the placement of embryonic stem cells in research subjects, Brownback, a Methodist, said tumors have resulted because the cells grow so rapidly. “In many respects,” he said, “they may be placing the ‘new wine in old skins’ parable … in front of us.”
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Utah) said everyone had entered the chamber “as the sum of our beliefs, our experiences, our values. And none of us have checked them at the door.”
Smith, a Mormon, said the magnitude of the debate led him to consult “sources of truth” for guidance.
He then read Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Smith referred to the passage as an “allegory of creation” that illustrated the two-step process of life: first flesh, then spirit.
Smith characterized cells as “dust of the earth” which are essential to life but, standing alone, will never constitute human life because they lack the breath of life.
“As an ancient apostle said, ‘The body without the spirit is dead,'” quoted Smith from James 2:26.
Smith stated his belief that life begins in a womb, not a laboratory.
However, a panelist later took issue with Smith’s theology.
Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of policy development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, testified that Smith’s claim of a two-step process of life was biologically “absurd.”
Doerflinger also characterized Smith’s statement as “amateur theology,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
The last panelist to offer expert testimony was Michael West, president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts. West said he too was pro-life, and that embryonic stem cell research was consistent with a pro-life position.
West said the phrase “human life” is sometimes misused, testifying that embryos are not yet individualized human life since they possess the potential to combine or split. “To ascribe to unindividualized cells the status of a person is a logical inconsistency.”
Following suit, West also cited Christian scripture.
First, he quoted apostle Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (I Cor 13:11).
West concluded that since the United States was a world leader in biotechnology, it was time to pursue a mature and reasoned debate on the issue.
West also referenced the parable of talents in Matthew 25, saying the medical community had been given “two talents of gold.” One is a cell that “can form any cell tissue in the body,” and the other is the ability “to return a cell back in time with a tiny time machine of nuclear transfer to make these cells identical to a patient.”
He concluded by urging the United States “to shrug off accusations that we’re building a modern Tower of Babel in reaching for the heavens.”
Forget reaching for the heavens. If last Wednesday’s chamber debate is any indication, people are reaching for scripture as they search for answers to the stem cell debate.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.