Fearfully, Wonderfully Made
The Questions of Stem Cells
By Fr. Dan Mindling
There is a reason why the church is so concerned with embryos and stem cells with birth control and birth technologies. It is not that the church is obsessed with sex. Rather, the church speaks of the beginnings of life because only with the eyes of faith can anyone see what is really going on! And this is what’s going on: God is behind the conception of every human being, of every single embryo. Only with the eyes of faith can we grasp that every human life has its origin in God, not in chemical reactions and not in technological advances. It is true that none of us was present when the world was made. But in the moment of conception, human parents are right there when God says once again, “Let us make a person in our image” (Genesis 1:26).
Every life begins with an act of divine love. Each one of us started out very small, but there is never a time in our lives when were insignificant. We are the image of God and the crown of his creation right from the start. When the largest single human cell, the female egg cell, unites with the smallest human cell, the male sperm, a new individual begins. And from that point on, we grow up fast. Fully mature, we are made up of trillions and trillions of cells.
In the first few days of our lives, we reach a size of merely dozens of cells, but many of these cells have a special ability. They not only grow and divide into cells just like themselves; they can also become other types of cells. At this early stage of life, we are called an embryo, and the cells with this ability to become other types of cells are called pluripotency. Like the stem of a plant from which leaves and branches and fruits and flowers, embryonic stem cells give rise to nerve, bone, blood- virtually every cell of the human body. Stem cells are part of God’s loving plan for the development and growth of every human person. They are also part of the reason why every person can marvel over having been “fearfully, wonderfully made” (Psalm 13:14).
A Stark Need and a Great Potential
Not all stem cells are embryonic stem cells. As adults, we too have a certain number of cells with this special ability. These are called adult stem cells. Under the right conditions, they too can divide to become a variety of different types of cells in the body, such as bone cells or muscle cells or nerve cells.
Stem cells, both embryonic and adult, are amazing. Without them, the human body would not be able to grow or repair itself. When we are hurt or sick, our bodies have as astounding ability to recover on their own, but sometimes need medical attention to help our bodies heal themselves. Even in those situations in which modern medicine can do nothing, we remain hopeful that one day, perhaps soon, a new cure will be found. Many scientists speculate that stem cell research is going to give us the next big medical breakthrough. They hope that diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will be treated in the future with some sort of stem cell therapy that will allow patients to grow back the damaged and diseased cells.
The potential is so great- and the need is so stark- that many wonder, for instance, if anything should keep us from developing stem cell treatments to cure, or at least reduce, the sufferings of the millions of the elderly with Alzheimer’s disease. Who knows? Maybe in the future we will be able to keep them from losing their treasured memories to this terrible illness. Who is to say that if research had been accelerated Pope John Paul II could have been spared the suffering of his crippling Parkinson’s disease? And what about children with diabetes who face a lifetime of blood tests, needles, and excruciating dietary exactness? Nobody knows for sure, but maybe, just maybe, breakthroughs in stem cell research might enable them to live like any other children.
” But very type of embryonic stem cell research cost more than money; It costs the lives of the youngest human beings on earth “
Many scientists say that if we are going to discover these hoped for breakthroughs, we need to begin doing research on embryonic stem cells. This type of stem cell is more pluripotent than adult stem cells. Researchers point out that embryonic stem cells can be removed quite easily from tens of thousands of “extra” embryos that are produced when couples pursue in vitro fertilization. These embryos- the ones that did not end up being implanted in a women’s womb- are lying frozen in fertility clinics, and some researchers wonder why we can’t use the stem cells from these embryos for research.
The “Brave New World” of Cloning
A few scientists believe that ore promising research includes producing new embryos solely for the sake of their stem cells. These “designer embryos” are better in the long run, they claim, because stem cell therapies ultimately involve stem cell transplants. You can avoid many of the complications of transplant rejection if you have a good match. Scientists hope to produce these special-use embryos by cloning. The process of cloning involves fantastic technology, but the basic idea is rather simple. A technician places part of the donor’s cell ( the nucleus) into a specially prepared egg cell and stimulates it chemically. IN this way, there is no need for a father’s sperm. If the process works (most of the time it does not), a cloned embryo starts to grow. When this tiny new life is but a few days old, the stem cells are removed, killing the embryo. These stem cells are not only pluripotent, they match the donor.
Does this sound like science fiction? Well, nobody has ever managed to develop a therapy using cloned embryonic stem cells, but scientists believe this process, called therapeutic cloning, is where we should be putting our research efforts and money right now. Research on embryonic stem cells is expensive, and scientists are asking governments, private companies, and universities for lots of money. Perhaps we are not accustomed to seeing it in the tiny mass cells that make up an embryo, but each one is a unique individual person, endowed by God with its own personality, gifts, talents, and destiny. Taking stem cells from an embryo mean certain death. Therapeutic cloning is especially grisly. You are producing young human beings only to kill them for their body parts. Such an approach is doubly wrong because it kills the innocent and because it fosters a second-class status for some people who exist merely to provide their bodies to be used by others. Cloning treats people like manufactured products. For these reasons and more, the United Nation’s 1997 Universal Declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights rejects human cloning, as do many individual countries and health organizations. Saving by Killing?
Nobody denies that to get stem cells from an embryo, you have to kill it, but what about the frozen embryos that will be killed anyway? Isn’t it better at least to save the stem cells from these embryos that are going to be discarded? The simple answer is ‘no’. You are not “saving” stem cells. You are claiming that there is a croup of innocent human beings that nobody wants, and so you are free to kill them because you want something that is theirs. This is the worst kind of discrimination: It is preying upon the innocent. “Embryonic stem cell research can never be part of the culture of life. Whatever bright future it claims to hold out, it is always full of death.”
Whether a person is small or large, young or old, dying or healthy, wanted or unwanted, it is morally wrong to kill him or her by removing his or her body parts. No matter what is going to happen to those persons later, it is wrong for us to kill them now. But does this mean we should never conduct stem cell research; Not at all. It should be encouraged as much as humanly possible and morally permissible. We mentioned earlier that scientists have discovered pluripotent adult stem cells in bone marrow and other parts of the body- even in umbilical cord blood. Although there have been no successful treatments using embryonic stem cells, many people have been helped using adult stem cell: people with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, sickle-cell anemia, heart damage, corneal damage, and dozens of other conditions. Again, this is not science fiction; it is happening right now. Moreover, there is cautious optimism that adult stem cells will offer treatment for many other diseases and injuries in the future.
The church encourages further research on adult stem cells. It does not want any more money poured into embryonic stem cell research because it involves killing embryos. Not only that, adult stem cell research is already working, already producing cures and treatments right now. Isn’t it tragic that we are not putting all available money into adult stem cell research instead of spending way too much of it the wrong way.
Taking a Prayerful Approach
Life faces new threats in many surprising places- including in research facilities that’s eek to perform fatal experiments upon embryos.
The challenge presented by embryonic stem cell research is not what we can and cannot accomplish by technology and science. In the end, it is about what we should and should not be doing. Medicine and scientific research must be at the service of life. Not everything that can be done should be done. To know that difference, we need to pray to the Lord of life for guidance. We need to shine the light of the gospel ahead of us so we can find our way. Surely God sees farther than we can, and surely he wants to give us his wisdom and guidance.
“No one pretends that medical science should halt all research into possible cures for the kinds of illnesses and conditions that stem cells may be able to treat, but it must stop killing the innocent to do so.”