Stem cell research has become a very controversial topic over the last few years. Proponents say that embryonic stem cells (ESC) can be used to treat and even cure numerous diseases. This being the case, it behooves Christians to know a few things about stem cells. Just how these seemingly miracle cures are being attempted raises some moral issues that Christians should pay close attention to in order to be ready to give an answer to those who ask.
Despite stem cells being a well-known topic in the media, few people actually have any idea what they are. “Stem cells are currently defined as cells that are capable of self renewal and differentiation into a defined set of progeny.”[i] These stem cells are formed at the conception of the organism. The formation of the stem cell is considered the “…origin of an organisms life.”[ii] When the egg and sperm merge, they form the zygote. The daughter cells of this zygote are totipotent.[iii] These totipotent cells can differentiate into all the cells of the body. Another word for these cells is are stem cells.
These stem cells are being eyed as the cure for numerous diseases and have applications in numerous other fields of researches. For example, gene therapy is an outgrowth of stem cell research. Stem cell research is being talked about as possible cures for diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, chronic heart disease, muscular dystrophy and many others. If they live up to the hype, stem cells could be the biggest breakthrough medicine has seen since penicillin.
There are actually two classes of stem cell research. One deals with stem cells harvested from embryos, the other with stem cells harvested from adults. Both have their advantages and disadvantages according to the scientists who deal with them.
Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are by far the more popular emphasis among scientists today. These cells are completely totipotent, able to differentiate into any cell type in the body. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from embryos that were killed. The protective covering of the embryo in vitro is taken off and the inner cells are removed.[iv] This is done by disrupting the days old embryo’s blastocysts and removing the stem cells, killing the embryo.[v] However, researchers value these cells highly because they divide rapidly and can differentiate into any cell type the body would naturally produce.
Despite these capabilities, there are some problems with embryonic stem cell research. Human embryonic stem cells are hard to culture and keep for any length of time.[vi] Because they naturally divide so rapidly, embryonic stem cells tend to be hard to keep pure and totipotent. Related to the rapid division of embryonic stem cells is another problem. “Embryonic stem cells have been found to produce tumors.”[vii] While this does not happen in every case, the fact that these cells divide rapidly causes a strong likelihood of cancer production in using embryonic stem cells. Another difficulty is that embryonic stem cells tend to trigger an immune response when they are implanted.[viii] The body does not recognize these embryonic cells as its own and attacks them as it would any other intruder. Secular scientists recognize yet another problem. “A problem in using embryonic stem cells for replacement of adult tissues concerns the low efficiency and long time required for embryonic stem cells to differentiate into functional adult cells.”[ix] Secular scientists admit that embryonic stem cells are inefficient in their work. Time is a precious commodity for a severely ill patient and embryonic stem cells take too long to work. “It is not clear that these cells will respond to signals derived from the microenvironment of adult organs to differentiate into the mature cell types desired; and if indeed they do, how many cells will differentiate and how long will the process take?”[x] Despite all the research and federal grants funding it, “To date, no approved medical treatment has been derived from embryonic stem cell research.”[xi] Embryonic stem cell research has proved to be a colossal failure.
The second class of stem cell research is adult stem cell (ASC) research. These cells are obtained from various different parts of the body. Almost every body part has stem cells. These stem cells were originally considered to only be able to regenerate the part of the body where they were found and thus were considered less useful than the embryonic stem cells. However, researchers are beginning to discover that adult stem cells are also totipotent. One researcher said in comparing embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells “On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that some form of tissue stem cell from the adult individuals may be just as good, or even better, for some purposes.”[xii] For example, germinal cells, derived from gender specific organs, are totipotent.[xiii] Some adult stem cells, called Mesynchymal stem cells (MSCs), which are derived from bone marrow, retain their ability to differentiate into different cells.[xiv] These cells could be a great advantage to researchers.
Adult stem cells have many advantages. It is possible that the Mesynchymal stem cells mentioned above will eventually be able to regenerate nerve tissue and repair cardiac damage.[xv] These cells also will not cause the immune reaction that the embryonic stem cells will because they were already part of the body and thus will not be regarded as intruders. In addition, “These cells have the advantageous property that they become an integral part of the body after engraftment.”[xvi] The body will not fight something it does not recognize as foreign and adult stem cells are not recognized as the enemy.
Adult stem cells do have some disadvantages according to the researchers. The biggest one is lack of knowledge and funding. Federal grants have largely gone toward embryonic stem cell research rather than to adult stem cell research, mostly because the researchers have persisted in claiming that embryonic stem cells will solve many medical problems. Therefore, testing on adult stem cells has not gone as far as it has on embryonic stem cells. However, as adult stem cell research makes progress, the funding and knowledge will come, along with the testing to make stem cells a viable medical cure for diseases.
Stem cell research, in particular embryonic stem cell research, is having a negative impact on society as a whole. The very fact that embryos are being created in vitro at all is a problem. An embryo created outside of the womb destroys the mystery of life. [xvii] Not only is the mystery of life damaged, an embryo created out of the womb becomes an object.[xviii] Once the embryo is an object, the human relationship structure is seriously damaged. No longer are the parents responsible for creating the baby. Rather, it is some scientist in a lab somewhere. This creates an atmosphere where the embryo is impersonal and very much another object in a science lab, which can be experimented upon at will. Once the embryo is an object, it is easy for the scientist to have no compunction about discarding it, despite the fact that it is alive.[xix] Test tube embryos make the future of humanity a project and nothing more.[xx] It is something scientists can edit to get desired results. Embryonic stem cell research is an outgrowth of this attitude and is being used to further the scientist’s grand visions, at the expense of human lives. Every scientist would acknowledge that both male and female gametes are alive. Thus, “there is no time during which life ceases and then restarts-thus the inescapable conclusion that life begins at conception.”[xxi] If life does begin when the egg and sperm cells fuse, then embryonic stem cell research destroys life, making it the equivalent of murder.
Adult stem cells do not have this effect. They are produced from cells already present within the body and are capable of doing the things that researchers have postulated for embryonic stem cells. They also do not claim the life of an innocent unborn baby. Not only do adult stem cells not kill babies, unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not damage the organizational structure of humanity nor do they turn the human embryo into an object for scientists to manipulate as they so choose.
The Bible, while it does not speak specifically regarding stem cell research, does lay out some foundational principles that should govern every Christians approach to research and science. The most obvious one is the sanctity of life. Throughout Scripture, this principle is illustrated. Twice, once in Exodus 20:13 the other in Deuteronomy 5:17, God gave the command not to kill. God also established capital punishment for murderers in Genesis 9:6, showing just how seriously He takes the life of one man.
A second principle found in the Word of God that applies to stem cell research is the fact that man is created in God’s image. According to Genesis 1:27, God made man in His image. Any time the life of a human, even a tiny day old embryo, is taken, God’s image is destroyed.
A third principle found in Scripture is related to the embryo itself. God repeatedly states in His word that the embryo is a living soul. Isaiah forty-four twice mentions God forming the child in the womb. In Isaiah 49:1 the prophet says he was called of God from his mother’s womb, and in Jeremiah 1:5 God specifically references calling Jeremiah to be a prophet even before He formed him in the womb. Clearly, God sees the embryo as being alive in the womb.
A fourth principle found in Scripture relates to God’s love of children. In Genesis 1:28 and again after the flood in Genesis 9:1 God commands man to have many children to fill the earth. Throughout Scripture, God shows a special tenderness to children. In all four Gospels, the story is told of Jesus allowing children to come to Him to be blessed. Not even His Nativity is mentioned in all four Gospels, so these little ones surely must be important to Jesus. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus says that children have special angels that constantly are in the presence of the Father. In both Mark and Luke, Jesus says it is better to be drowned in the sea than to injure the little children following Him. Clearly, God has a tender heart towards children. Embryonic stem cell research involves destroying the life of a child. Surely, God’s judgment and wrath await those who strike so near to the Father’s heart.
Stem cells can be an amazing medical development. They just need to be used appropriately. Embryonic stem cell research is clearly outside of God’s defined order of things and as such should be shunned by Christians. Not only does it involve murder and violate several Biblical principles, but it also is a failure. Rather than murdering children, researchers should focus on adult stem cells where the progress is coming at a rapid pace and soon may explode into the greatest medical development of the century.
- Sell, Stewart ed. Stem Cell Handbook (Totawa, NJ: Humana Press, 2004), 419.
- Ibid, 1.
- Ibid, 2.
- Sell, Stem Cell Handbook, 34.
- Waters, Brent and Richard Cole-Turner ed. God and the Embryo (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 9.
- Sell, Stem Cell Handbook, 5.
- Ibid, 14.
- Sell, Stem Cell Handbook, 14.
- Ibid, 6.
- Ibid, 111.
- Ibid, 115.
- Ibid, 497.
- Waters, and Cole-Turner, God and the Embryo, 11.
- Ibid, 11.
- Ibid, 12.