The growing debate over stem cell research and reproductive cloning has drawn bioethicists and people of faith into an ongoing dialogue about medical ethics and morality.

John Buchanan grew up in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was pastor of Southside Baptist Church. Calling himself a progressive, or Lincoln Republican, he eventually became the first Republican to represent Birmingham in Congress.

His growing support for civil rights, women’s rights and human rights around the world made him the target of the Moral Majority in Alabama. In 1980, after serving 16 years in Congress, Buchanan said his political career ended when the “Moral Majority demolished me in Christian love.”

Buchanan now works to help bring dialogue between religious leaders and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. He travels from his home in Washington, D.C., to Boston and San Francisco as an independent consultant. recently interviewed Buchanan about his opinions on and experiences with the stem cell and cloning debate.

Why do you support stem cell research and oppose reproductive cloning?

Like about 90 percent of the American people including most of the biotechnology industry, I oppose cloning of human beings for reproductive purposes. If the road to the cloning of lower animals is any clue, the results are unpredictable, unsafe, and of highly questionable morality.

By the end of the year 2000, eight species had been cloned, including mice, cows, rhesus monkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, and rats, totaling between three thousand and five thousand cloned animals. There was some degree of abnormality produced in most cloning ventures, many quite severe. Dolly the sheep continues to seem quite normal and healthy heading into mid-life, but she was preceded by many, many, failures. Such failures continue. It is not a safe or even sane course for human reproduction.

Therapeutic cloning is, however, a different matter. It is a part of an exciting new breakthrough in medical science called regenerative medicine, in which the healing agents are not chemicals, but living cells. Stem cells have the capacity to become any category of cells in the body. They can also reproduce more of themselves virtually without limit. They are tiny living building blocks, which can be induced to form healthy replacement cells for diseased or injured tissue or quite possibly entire organs.

Stem cell research gives promise of treating cancers, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, and a variety of illnesses, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, liver and kidney failure. If this research succeeds, literally millions of people worldwide will be its beneficiaries. While some stem cells can be obtained from adult sources, the most promise lies in embryonic stem cells.

How do you see stem cell research from a theological vantage point?

In the case of a donated unfertilized egg, used in therapeutic cloning, is the resultant entity a human being, a child, as the President of the United States and the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist hierarchies contend? Creating a new person is certainly not the intent of the process, nor do I believe it does or should take place.

If an existing embryo is used in the process, it this embryo a child? At this beginning stage an embryo is comprised of a small number of cells and is smaller than the dot in .com. Only in a minority of cases do such embryos become implanted in a woman’s womb and grow to become a fetus and then a fully formed child. Seventy-five to 90 percent of [those] embryos … live briefly, then die as a small group of cells passing from a woman’s body into nothingness, without even their human creators knowing they existed at all, and certainly not as a result of a decision or action by them.

If every embryo is indeed a human being, a child, then the most high God, the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God, creator of all life, must will that 75 to 90 percent of the children who come into existence are destined to live briefly, then die as a little group of cells without form or function or purpose of any kind. For the overwhelming majority of these embryonic “persons,” their trajectory will never take them to know life as living, breathing human beings. But they must be treated as sacrosanct and untouchable by those who would attempt to use them to help living, breathing human beings who are dying, to live, who are lame, to walk, and who are suffering, to heal. These miraculous living building blocks called stem cells give promise of doing all these things, and each embryo is comprised primarily of these magical cells.

What if, instead, these cells are precious gifts of God, created in some cases to become children, but in many more for the precise purpose of accomplishing modern-day miracles of human healing?

This seems much more in harmony with the God revealed by Jesus as a loving, caring Father to humans, with Jesus’ own healing ministry, and with what we do know about the nature of God’s creation.

Everything in creation reflects meaning, purpose, and order, shouting out the fact of an intelligent Creator. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crown of His creation, human kind. Truly, as the Bible says, “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Of all God’s creatures, only we have been given the gift to become partners with God in His continuing acts of creation. Every miraculous aspect of life in the 21st century, whether in chemistry, in medical science, in electronics, or in other areas where accomplishments in science and technology have transformed life on earth, has been a fruit of this partnership. All we have discovered has been inherent in the earth since the beginning of time as a part of God’s creation. He has given us the energy, the curiosity, the stubbornness, to probe and probe, experiment and experiment, and persevere until we have uncovered another of God’s secret treasures, hidden for us to find.

Since God gave stem cells such great potential for human healing and made therapeutic cloning possible for such purposes, surely we can find a way that is morally, ethically, and theologically right to use them. I respectfully suggest we should proceed in the prayerful hope that if there is a better way, God will help us find it.

What can churches do to engage in healthy discussions about this controversial matter?

In confronting issues like therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research, there are a couple of problems. First, the issues involved are gray, rather than black or white. Secondly, because of the above, some Christians come down firmly on one side and others firmly on the other, while still others conclude that anyone who isn’t a little confused doesn’t understand the issue.

As of this date, Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and United Methodist hierarchies, for example oppose embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic as well as reproductive cloning, while Orthodox and Reformed Jews, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Unitarian Universalists, and others support this research. Many religious groups are still undecided. There are also both clergy and laity on both sides who do not agree with the position of their own denominations.

Recently, Senator Orrin Hatch, a devout Mormon and strong “right to life” advocate, co-sponsored a bill outlawing reproductive cloning but favoring therapeutic cloning. He testified that he had come to a clear decision after much soul-searching, study, and prayer. He had in-depth conversations with those on both sides in the process.

Our first responsibility is to disagree in love. If I do not love my brothers in Christ Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others like them, I am failing to live up to our Lord’s example and command.

While churches should prayerfully study complicated issues like those discussed here, we, as Christians, should never sit in judgment on each other because of our differences in theology or politics. When we disagree, it should hopefully be knowledgeably and with love.

What is the current legislative status of stem cell research in Congress?

At present, there is no ban against private stem cell research, and government entities like the National Institutes of Health can spend limited funds for this purpose. However, they are only permitted to use one highly limited set of leftover cells from fertility clinics.

Researchers generally are wary of adverse government action, however, in light of the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, a total ban passed by the United States House of Representatives against the related issue of therapeutic cloning. An identical bill, now pending in the Senate, introduced by Senators Brownback and Landrieu, outlaws all cloning activity, and carries stiff penalties against any doctor or patient who attempts to acquire and use the products of therapeutic cloning elsewhere, as in Europe, where it is permitted by law.

If you or your doctor obtain healing help from abroad for your dying spouse or crippled child, for example, if it is the fruit of a cloning process, you or your doctor could be punishable by a fine of up to $1 million and a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Your fate will be subject to the tender mercies of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Alternative legislation co-sponsored by Senators Hatch, Specter, Kennedy, and Feinstein would outlaw only reproductive cloning and permit the continuation of therapeutic cloning research.

How would you describe President Bush’s stand on stem cell research?

The President has come forward with strong support for a total ban on all types of cloning activity, and urged support of the House bill. He has also proposed an international ban on all cloning activity. His words also seemed to imply opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications coordinator.

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