Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Stem Cells without Embryos 

Scientists have discovered over ten years ago that embryonic stem cells can develop into any organ of the body, and can thus be useful in treating diseases. To refresh your memory, stem cells are those that are taken from newly fertilized eggs, eggs that are in their earliest stages of development, containing no more than 64- cells. Many of these embryos are “extras,” having been produced in laboratories for in-vitro fertilization. The sperm are from the father or donor and are joined, in a petri dish, to the egg taken from the female. Usually only one such fertilized egg is needed for implantation, thus leaving perhaps four or five extra embryos. These extra embryos are either frozen for possible future use or discarded. Because these cells are stem cells, they are pluripotent, which means that, unlike more mature cells (the mature baby has billions of cells), they hold the possibility of developing into any organ of the body. The stem cells do not actually develop into organs, but they do begin to resemble the organ cells. The use of them has the potential of curing many dread diseases. An example of this is that when they are introduced into a diseased kidney, the other cells “educate” and integrate the new cells until the organ is effectively regenerated.

This ability to grow human tissue of all kinds may make it possible to cure numerous cell-based diseases such as juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, and they could make organ transplants unnecessary.

This information is a summary of an article, “Ethical Concerns Surround Stem-cell Research,” by Hacsi Horvath posted on CNN research page.

We can be thankful to God that this effort has raised the consciousness of America concerning the ethical propriety of such activity. These stem cells taken from young embryos raised the question of the nature of fertilized eggs. Many in the medical field expressed caution that if we believe that life begins at conception, these embryos are actually conceived persons, though lacking a developed body. If a medical technician would use them for experimental purposes (e.g., to grow specific cells of the body for later implantation), this would have a direct effect upon the life of the embryo. In the above mentioned article, David R. Cox, professor of genetics and pediatrics and co-director of the Stanford Human Genome Center at Stanford University, is quoted as stating, “A significant fraction of people in our country believe that developing human stem cells from early pre-implantation human embryos is destroying human life.”

The solution Cox proposed was an “intermediate position.” He suggests that the way forward is to address the concerns of people who believe that this type of research should not be conducted under any circumstances, by emphasizing that the human embryos would have been destroyed or thrown away anyway and that the purpose is to alleviate human suffering.

By now we are quite familiar with such reasoning in our postmodern world. There is no standard of right or wrong. Quite simply, the end justifies the means.

This issue of stem-cell use has become a national debate. It became that through the efforts of our president, George W. Bush. From an article published in Time magazine, August 12, 2001, entitled, “How Bush Got There,” we learn that, after Bush consulted many medical ethicists and religious leaders, he came to the compromise solution that Timecalled “wonderfully adroit.” “By allowing funds for research on the small number of already existing stem-cell lines (more than 60 as later indicated), but denying money for any work with stem cells derived from newly formed embryos, he positioned himself in the narrow political space that allowed him to claim he had not stood in the way of promising medical investigations. At the same time, he could insist that he had kept his promises to the Republican right, which abandoned his father after the elder Bush broke his no-new-taxes pledge. To placate scientists who argue that Bush did not go far enough, he promised ‘aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical-cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells, which do not involve the same moral dilemma.'”

President Bush announced to the American people in August 2001 that the government would limit its funding for research to embryos already in existence and destined for destruction. No funding would be given for research upon newly formed embryos. This did not mean that private laboratories, both commercial and educational, were forbidden to make use of other embryos; the restriction applied only to government-financed projects. This aroused a national debate and a storm of protest. Scientists and people who suffered debilitating diseases raised a cry of obstructionism and lack of sympathy. On the other hand, from the pro-life people came accusations of compromise and of lack of respect for the unborn.

We can easily see how the public policy of the government on this issue never solved the moral issue at stake. The reasoning was utilitarian. These embryos were the result of fertilization in a petri dish and were preserved by cryonics. They were of no interest to the donors. In fact, the donors were willing to sign consent forms that authorized their release for scientific use. The embryos were destined to be destroyed anyway, so why not make good use of them for the next generation? The government did not want any responsibility for the creating of more of these embryos. They restricted use to those already created. In the end, however, they never faced the issue whether these embryos were actually conceived persons, which was what the abortion debate is all about. Was the discarding of them a form of murder? Was this similar to the natural selection of the fertilization process? Every fertilized egg, of course, does not implant in the womb. Some of them are discarded in the natural process of fertilization. But, no matter the rationale, the fact is that we Christians view the fertilized egg as the beginning of life. Respect for human life begins with our treatment of the embryo. The moral dilemma was not resolved by government policy, it was aggravated.

Then, November 21, 2007, the New York Times announced to the nation that scientists had bypassed the need for embryos to get stem cells.

Two teams of scientists reported yesterday that they had turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo—a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field. 

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood, or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process. 

The need to destroy embryos has made stem cell research one of the most divisive issues in American politics. Pitting President Bush against prominent Republicans like Nancy Reagan, and patient advocates who hoped that stem cells could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s. The new studies could defuse the issue as a presidential election nears. 

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene, but stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary. 

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work, conducted by independent teams from Japan and Wisconsin, should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot. 

The reaction is interesting. 

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Padholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added. 

The White House said that Mr. Bush was “very pleased” about the new findings, adding that, “By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, president Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries.”

Little but Alive

World magazine, in its February 2, 2008 issue, has an article by the above title. It includes an interview with two men, Robert George and Chris Tollefsen, who wrote a bookEmbryo: A Defense of Human Life. Their response to the announcement in the New York Times of obtaining stem cells without touching the embryo is helpful.

Unfortunately, the debate does not look like it is over. Almost immediately after the announcement, some scientists, journalists, and lobbyists started to declare the need to “keep all options open”—including the option of killing human embryos. This has become a mantra for those who seem committed to research on embryonic humans regardless of the moral or scientific merit of such inquiry.

Later in the same article, they mention how this might be done.

Here is the worst case scenario: the creation of millions of human embryos— human beings in the early stages of development—in order to perform scientific experiments on them, and in order to harvest their body parts for medical therapies for others. We have sadly seen the destruction of millions of human beings before in a litany of tragedies of the 20th century. But we have never seen the creation of human beings precisely for the purpose of destruction and use.

In the subsequent details of the interview, they set forth the contents of their book, which is an attempt to demonstrate the Christian perspective of human life at conception and why the critical issue in our on-going debate over abortion must be the biblical teaching of God’s involvement in conception and the value we place upon the human embryo.

Even with President Bush’s position, which is now the practice in our country as far as spending public funds is concerned, scientists must limit themselves to use embryos that are already in existence and destined to be destroyed and experiment with them— even though it means the death of these human beings.

In the middle of such confusion, responsible Christians, on the basis of the Bible, insist that abortion is wrong. Many cold-hearted scientists are convinced that embryos are only tissue formed in the mother, over which she has the right to have final say and has the right to determine whether it remains or is removed. In between, we have a political position that says, kill a few but don’t add to their number.

Even the above-mentioned discovery of “other ways” will not solve the abortion debate. It helps Christian scientists who may be involved in this field of research to be able to participate without compromising their conscience. It may give hope to Christians who desire to benefit from such research for the treatment of frustrating diseases. All this is a helpful and hopeful advance for us as Christians. But when it comes to ethics, Christians in all walks of life, including pastors in the pulpit and in every public forum, must continue to decry abortion and cry out to our faltering nation, “Thou shalt not kill.” Whether our neighbors like it or not, the Bible is the source of our ethics and we are not ashamed to tell them.

And when it comes to action, we may well appreciate those who refuse to sit on their hands and allow abortions to be performed. Many Christians are willing to risk everything, though they refuse to break the law, trying to persuade women who come to have abortions to consider some alternative. There are pro-life pregnancy centers, the Care Nets, the Heartbeat organizations, which act on their convictions. It’s easy to criticize such activity, but what are you doing as a Christian? There is a place for evaluating the moral quality of movements. Just as important, it is time to stand up and address our responsibilities.

The scientists will not solve the problem of abortion, though they may try to help find some solutions. Rather, it is a matter of our heartfelt relationship with God and our love for our neighbor. Only God is able to save us from hatred and murder. He does this through His Son, Jesus Christ. God gave His Son as a payment for sin, which benefit becomes ours as we embrace Him by faith. Only God’s love accomplishes such reconciliation. This is the gospel we are called upon to bring to our neighbors by word and deed. May God help us do this in these difficult times.