There is a possibility that I may take a job which will put me right at the center of the embryonic stem cell debate, so I'm trying to figure out my biblical stance on the issues before I'm asked to raise money to support something I may or may not agree with. I am looking for some biblical guidance (besides Psalm 139:13), as well as your educated opinion, to help me be at peace about this. I have no ethical problems with stem cell (bone marrow or peripheral blood progenitor cells -- those that make white, red and platelets) and therapeutic cloning. (I would elaborate but I'm trying to keep this short.) I guess my question is really about the embryonic stem cells (the blastocyst -- the eight-day-old fertilized egg that is the progenitor of muscle, nerve, and organ cells that are at the center of the debate). Psalm 139 doesn't clearly answer the question of when life begins -- whether at conception, when there is a heartbeat, or when the baby is viable. In my view of conception, a couple who underwent in vitro fertilization would be killing a potential child if they chose to not continue to freeze any unused embryos. The sticky point: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of one? Do the rights of an already formed human outweigh the rights of one embryo? (I would say no, but then you get into asking, "Does the saving of one life justify the killing of another?" Would the answer be different if thousands of lives could be saved by the death of one?) Jesus was sacrificed so that many could live. Is it only unethical now because it isn't viable and more experimental? If it was viable and could mean thousands of lives could be saved because of the sacrifice of a frozen embryo that the parents are going to destroy anyway, how would God look on the parents, the scientist, and the fundraiser? -- Diana

It seems like you are asking all the right questions. Few Christians would feel comfortable with type 2 stem cell research, even though many fail to distinguish it from type 1. For me, type 1 is fine, but type 2 is highly problematic. The Bible doesn't aim to specify the exact point at which human life begins; rather, it seems to assume that it begins sometime in the womb, before the "frame" was knit together (Psalm 139:15).

You will need to follow your scientific and Christian intuitions on this one. Moreover, the Psalms are hardly the best place for harvesting doctrines. In Psalms, many statements are made and prayers uttered that do not represent sound "doctrine" (Psalm 137, for example.) It would be helpful if the letters of Paul contained a precise definition, or the book of Leviticus offered an explicit description, but we do not have any such passages.

Sure, to sacrifice one life for many lives is a virtuous thing, especially when the sacrifice is willed by the one whose life will be offered. To offer someone else's life is quite a different matter, though at times it may seem completely justified. For many at the end of WW II, dropping the atomic bombs on Japan accomplished a greater good. But of course that does not mean it was right. That must be determined not on practical grounds, but on absolute moral grounds.

If I had to say one way or the other, I would discourage experimentation on what are technically embryos. I may be wrong in my stance, but that is where I stand. If I were asked to raise money to support a range of types of research, some of which were ethically acceptable to me and others not, it would be a judgment call. I can imagine two solutions. I'm not sure which way I would lean in that case.

Thanks for your courage to face these issues. Study, pray, consult, and make a good-faith decision. Once you have given your "final answer," and in the absence of conclusive new evidence, don't doubt yourself and "flip-flop."

For more on the issue of Stem Cell Research, please see the July 2005 issue of Scientific American: "Special Report: The Future of Stem Cells."

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