Stem cell research has once again embroiled Christians in ethical debate. The remarkable potential for therapeutic interventions with stem cells is evidenced by the frequency with which bone marrow transplants save desperately ill people. Stem cell activity makes these transplants successful.
The public controversy around human stem cell research has focused on the morality and legality of using embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are taken from eight to 64 cell masses (the size of a pinhead), thereby destroying or killing the embryo.
These embryos are usually obtained from in vitro fertilization clinics. Most clinics in the United States create more embryos for implantation than are needed. Later, these “excess” frozen embryos are discarded, but they may be used for research.
Much of the ethical debate has centered on the status of the embryo. Does the developing embryo receive full human dignity and moral status at fertilization, at day five of development, at implantation, at month three of pregnancy, at month three after birth?
People of faith have radically different responses to this question. Do the needs of the living outweigh the rights of the unborn? Of course, politically these conversations mirror our long-standing divisions around abortion.
But there are other ethical questions pertinent the research and development in health care today. They challenge American culture’s idolatry of technology and invite reflection upon responsible Christian stances in relation to technologically driven change.
First, what is our justification for the huge investment in eradicating physical defects? Are these efforts compassionate co-creating with God? Or, are they acts of hubris seeking to overcome the tragic facts of human contingency and finitude?
Should there be a limit to human initiative in relieving suffering, curing disease, enhancing human capacities? Are illnesses and defect a result of sin? If so, do acts that reverse these defects participate in redemption or “play God”?
Scientists are no better than others at predicting the future. For example, plant geneticists created a strain of corn that offered great benefits. But they did not foresee that the pollen would kill caterpillars of the monarch butterfly. As this corn spreads, the existence of the butterfly is at risk. Are we wise enough to reshape the core building blocks of human life?
Second, how do we justify the cost that is required to develop core knowledge, build practical knowledge of biological functioning, and develop therapeutic modalities? A capitalistic model justifies these costs based on the investment’s return. They are justified if the investor receives a profit.
Of course, that model is skewed because most core knowledge and much practical knowledge is gained through grant funding by federal and philanthropic groups. Then biotech companies take that knowledge and develop therapies that become available at a high price.
Is this a just system? Biotech companies are prestigious, powerful and market leaders in investment return. Are they more akin to the “Good Samaritan” or “principalities and powers?”
For example, recent technology has driven amazing advances in pharmaceuticals. Quality of life has been enhanced for millions of people. However, the pharmaceutical industry is investor-owned and thus profit-driven. These advances constitute a large percentage of our current unsustainable increases in health-care costs. From a Christian perspective, how are we to judge, counsel and support these endeavors?
Christians should carefully consider the moral status of the embryo because it is a crucial ethical distinction. However, stem cell research highlights larger issues of religion, culture and technology, and they too require careful evaluation.
Pastors, reflective lay theologians, scientists and physicians worship together. They would also do well to study together to develop wisdom for acting faithfully.
Steve Ivy is vice president for values, ethics, social responsibility and pastoral services of Clarian Health Partners in Indianapolis, Ind.