Thursday, February 21, 2008

Embryonic Stem Cells and My Faith

My mother had Parkinson's Disease (PD) for sixteen years. She died from PD in 2005, but she had slipped away from me in small increments for years. Her PD made me interested in the possibilities of stem cell research, especially embryonic stem cell research. As a Christian, I was also concerned about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. After studying both the science and the ethical issues, I came to firmly support embryonic stem cell research.

First, I dealt with the science. Was the promise of embryonic stem cells real? Yes. Embryonic stem cells can become any cell in the body. If scientists could learn the secrets of embryonic stem cells, then any cell in the body could be replaced. If embryonic stem cells could be coaxed to become dopamine producing neurons, then Parkinson's disease could be treated. The potential was there. Only time and new research would prove the efficacy. Embryonic stem cell research also provided a way to gain insight into the cause of disease. How much better to prevent the disease from ever happening than to have to cure it.

Next, I dealt with the ethics of stem cell research. To date, the best way to get embryonic stem cells was to harvest them from a less than fourteen day old fertilized egg. This procedure destroyed the fertilized egg, so the question I had to face was whether I believed that a fertilized egg was a human being or, most importantly for me, had a soul. If the fertilized egg were a human being or had a soul, then, no matter the benefits, I could not support stem cell research.

I looked both to my faith and science for the answer. Psalm 39 says "He knit me together in my mother's womb." I understand that to mean that only in the womb does a fertilized egg become a human being and receive a soul. That was scant justification. The Bible also states that we are created in God's image. Scholars have interpreted this to mean that the image of God is our mind. There is no mind present in a fourteen day old embryo, no central nervous system, no brain. This helped, but did not decide the issue for me.

Science ultimately provided the key for me. We now know that fifty percent of all eggs fertilized naturally during a woman's lifetime do not implant. So, if a fertilized egg had a soul, God was letting half of all souls be wasted. I simply do not believe the God I know would act so capriciously. For me, the issue was decided. I could support embryonic stem cell research wholeheartedly.

I do not know when an embryo receives a soul. I know that it does not happen before it implants in the womb.

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