Stem Cell Research: Making Our Argument in the Midst of Confusion

We must be ready to gently and knowledgeably inform and educate our friends and neighbors about the types of research, about why we oppose embryonic stem cell research, and why that opposition does not mean we oppose every type of stem cell research that is being performed.

Stem Cell Research: Making our Argument in the Midst of ConfusionIf I were to state that boldly I am in favor of stem cell research (and I am), how many of my well-intentioned fellow pro-life Christian brothers and sisters would rise up in righteousness indignation?  I would guess a large number, and based upon an increasingly confusing use of the term “stem cell research” this would be understandable. If we read through media accounts, and even through many of our pro-life articles and journals, we find articles about stem cell research that fail to differentiate adult and embryonic stem cell research.

I readily admit to having a vested interest in stem cell research.  I am a diabetic, as is one of my daughters. I have a sister-in-law, and several close friends who have Muscular Sclerosis.  Relatively recently, my father died from complications due to Parkinson’s disease.  These are all conditions which may benefit from this research.  However, I have noticed, as have many in the pro-life community, that in much of the publics’ mind all stem cell research involves embryonic cells, and, therefore, if we oppose embryonic research it must follow that we are opposing all stem-cell research.  We must be ready to gently and knowledgeably inform and educate our friends and neighbors about the types of research, about why we oppose embryonic stem cell research, and why that opposition does not mean we oppose every type of stem cell research that is being performed.

A recent article on embryonic stem cell research is titled, “California Stem Cell Research Committee Ready to Distribute Money.” While the article actually begins with “The California committee charged with distributing billions in taxpayer funds for embryonic stem cell research and human cloning is ready to get going with the first $300 million in grants after winning the first stage of a lawsuit filed against it,” how can confusion not prevail?  The title makes it appear that stem cell and embryonic stem cell research are one in the same.

So, how do we explain the differences?

The first question we need to be ready to answer is: “What are stem cells?”

Stem cells are the immediate result of the initial fertilization of an egg at conception. As the division process continues, for the first four days, the cells that are produced may later become any of a variety of cell types (such as heart, lung, brain, muscle, nerve cells and the like). As these embryonic stem cells continue being produced for another couple of days, their potential for the above process (called “differentiation”) is still strong but unlike the “totipotent” cells created in the first four days, they can no longer form an entire human being by themselves.  They are now termed “pluripotent” and still have the capability of becoming virtually all types of cells.  As the cells continue to divide, they become “multipotent”, capable of still forming many, but not all kinds of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells may be of all three types. Adult stem cells will only be of the “multipotent” type.

The argument for preferring embryonic stem cell research to adult research seems reasonable, on the surface.  By understanding the potency of various stem cells, it would appear that the study of embryonic stem cells would be broader and more successful than the supposed limited potency of adult stem cells.  Add to this the fact that it is much easier to find and grow embryonic stem cells, we can see that a purely pragmatic argument may point toward embryonic research as the better option.

However, the pragmatic theory, and the moral argument, in actual fact, point toward adult stem cell research.

First, from the moral viewpoint, we must consider whether the pragmatic or utilitarian argument overrides the pro-life argument. The embryos providing the stem cells most commonly are the “leftovers” of in vitro fertilization. In this process many embryos are created, with only a percentage being placed in the mother’s womb. The remaining embryos are usually ether destroyed, turned over for research or, less commonly, frozen for possible future implantation.  Holy Scripture indicates that God considers these embryos to be human persons.  For example, according to Jeremiah 1:15 we read, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Note that even before God formed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb he was recognized as a full person by God! If one accepts a biblical perspective on life and personhood then the only possible argument may come down to the greater good.  This argument quickly becomes almost nonsensical.  A Stanford researcher has said that if 10,000 embryos were thawed, perhaps 100 viable stem cells would be obtained. Yet to treat diseases scientists would need hundreds of thousands of embryos to work with.  Hundreds of thousands of lives would be sacrificed in the name research for any type of possible advance.

However, to make matters even worse, the utilitarian viewpoint (which requires evidence of the wide spread advances and successes in embryonic research and application) is fallacious. It is absolutely false! In a recent study of conditions which had been successfully treated using technologies derived from adult stem cell research, the varieties of cancers, auto-immune diseases, cardiovascular problems, ocular problems, immunodeficiencies, neural degenerative diseases, blood conditions, injuries and other metabolic disorders numbered 65.  The number of conditions successfully treated using embryonic stem cells (supposedly the more powerful technology), zero.  This added to recent evidence that some embryonic stem cell research results have been the result of intentionally faked data leaves us with the conclusion that the so-called superiority of embryonic stem cell research exists only in the minds of some hopefully well-meaning researchers, but not in reality.

In the face of this information, what are we as pro-life people to do? 

We need to understand our audience. 

First, we need to make sure that when talking to the public we are very clear that all stem cell research is not embryonic research. If we don’t unjumble this misconception, our arguments will often be futile, falling on deaf ears and causing folks to believe we don’t care about research to end these ravaging disease that may be helped by stem cell therapy.

Second, we need to make our arguments to the scientific community based upon the lack of evidence that embryonic stem cell research is an effective path regardless of one’s view of life in the embryo. Yes, this may be difficult for some of us, making us feel as if the pro-life argument is not important. We need to remember that to many in the scientific community the argument truly is of limited relevance, and that through serious research, reading, and reflection we will need to develop arguments that the researcher will at least consider. Although we also need to know the Biblical arguments, we need to develop strategies that will not come across as “Bible Thumping” to a population that has no particular interest in the Bible. It can be done!  It will require a great deal of effort and study, and also great kindness and forbearance toward those who are opposed to our arguments.  However, by using the terms and arguments of research against the standard clichés of embryonic stem cell research, we will be able to open the discussion as well-read and educated people who have a true concern for both the lives of the unborn and the spiritual growth and life of those with whom we debate.

We will save lives, and practice the Great Commission at the same time. Not a bad result!

This article was originally written by Glen De Shaw in 2006 for Anglicans for Life’s summer newsletter.

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Categories: Bioethics,
Tags: adult stem cells, argument, bioethics, debate, embryonic stem cells, stem cell research,
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