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The stem cell question

By Ed Gungor
web posted March 16, 2009

Last week, President Barack Obama rescinded an executive order that prohibited the use of federal funds for stem cell research. Though this move is the fulfillment of a campaign promise (and shouldn't surprise us), it is very disturbing for those of us who are advocates of life. The fundamental impediment to our acceptance of embryonic stem cell research has to do with destruction of the human embryo.

Thankfully, President Obama said he opposed human "cloning," which would be the creation of human embryos solely for the production of stem cells, rather than with the intention of creating a new human being.

Advocates of life believe that life begins at conception, and since an embryo uninterrupted by death grows into a baby—it is a life. Ethically, any life is inherently valuable and should never be voluntarily destroyed. It is hard to justify the taking of a life in order to extend or improve someone else's. It seems like cannibalism on some level. And without the protection of the basic right to stay alive, aren't all other human rights sort of arbitrary?

On the other hand, supporters of stem cell research say it will open up a broad front of research to find better treatments for ailments like diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other serious illnesses. These supporters are claiming they are being "pro-life" by trying to improve and help the lives of those who are ill. They are also quick to point out that the embryos used for this research are the unused embryos from fertility clinics that would otherwise have simply been thrown away.

They bring up an argument that makes this issue more complex than at first blush. Though the pro-life movement regards all embryos as human persons, pro-life leaders seem mainly concerned about the relatively few embryos that are killed by having their stem cells extracted. There seems to be little or no concern over the many hundreds of thousands of embryos which have been terminated or which will eventually die in in-vitro fertilization clinics.

So what are we to do? If we are against the use of stem cell research on the basis of embryonic destruction, shouldn't we also be against in-vitro fertilization clinics because there are always excess embryos that get discarded?

On the other hand, shouldn't those of us who love life celebrate the opportunity that infertile couples (and those who have great difficulty getting pregnant) enjoy precisely because of the science of in-vitro fertilization?

My point is that conversations about medical ethics can get complex very quickly (like all socio-political issues tend to)—which is precisely the point that most of us miss. We oversimplify issues; we stand on soapboxes; we scream and yell at those who disagree with us (all in the name of God, of course.)

Before you scream too loudly over this move by President Obama (or claim this evidences he is the antichrist), keep in mind that the prohibition for using federal funds under the executive order by President Bush did not stop the practice of harvesting of stem cells from unused embryos from fertility clinics. Even President Bush, who disagreed with this ethically, did not try to stop the research completely. Why? It's a complex issue.

Think about it. You may be (as I am) against destroying embryos to use for stem cell research, but I bet you are delighted for the couples that get to have children as a result of in-vitro fertilization clinics.

You may not be for stem cell research, but what if there was a treatment that utilized stem cells (that would have been tossed away) that would curb a crippling disease tormenting your child or loved one? Wouldn't you wonder if that wasn't a good use of what would have otherwise been thrown in the garbage?

Perhaps you scream "NO!"—but can you understand why others might struggle here?

The good news is that there is new research that may make this whole discussion moot. According to Science Daily, Dr. Nagy, Senior Investigator at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital, there is a "new method of generating stem cells does not require embryos as starting points and could be used to generate cells from many adult tissues such as a patient's own skin cells" (see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090301181423.htm).

As Christians wrestle through issues like this in the 21st century, we need to remember that these kinds of developments are not addressed explicitly in Scripture—there are only general parameters to ponder, wonder about, pray over, and wrestle through. The problem is many of us try to make these issues this black-and-white simple, but they often are not. They are filled with complexity. But complexity is too colorful for some of us, and we prefer doling out black-and-white conclusions.

Remember the movie Pleasantville? In the universe of Pleasantville (filmed in black and white instead of color), life was . . . pleasant. Nothing akin to the horrors of war, famine, or AIDS existed there. The bathrooms didn't even have toilets—that would have been impolite. The high-school basketball team never missed a shot, firemen only rescued cats stuck in trees (there were no house fires), families were perfect, and teen sweethearts never went past "first base." Everything, absolutely everything, was perfect in that idyllic little town.

Some people try to make every issue like Pleasantville—simple and clear, with some added Bible verses blazing (along with chapter and verse) to back up our opinions. We tell people what to think and what to believe. Telling people what seems so much simpler than telling them why. And safer too.

Thinking, cognizing, conceptualizing, perceiving, understanding, comprehending, and cogitating—all are words for actions that are much more complex than simply commanding and directing. Demanding that people think a certain way in order to belong is so clean, so black-and-white simple. Helping them internalize the why behind a position and letting them participate in a discussion on conclusions is both cumbersome and potentially dangerous—they may conclude something different than what we think. God forbid.

Recognizing complexity is an untidy affair. It's more color, less black-and-white, and most crave a black-and-white, "Pleasantville" world—especially religious people.

Certainly we can tell others what we believe about issues like this, but I think it is important that we talk and listen and trust God to help us wrestle through the seeming contradictory pros and cons involved. The truth never changes, but how it is applied within the context of the 21st century needs careful consideration. But "careful consideration" demands more trust in both God and his people. That will mean we need to be tolerant, patience, and open to diversity and difference of opinion—open to color. ESR

New York Times bestselling author Ed Gungor has been in pastoral ministry for more than 25 years. You can follow Ed Gungor on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Sign up for the RSS feed to his blog at ChristianPost.com.

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