A Life To Be Or Not To Be

Written By: on Jun 23rd, 2009 and filed under Columns, Opinions.

History of stem cell research

As reported in the New York Times of November 8, 1988, two groups of medical doctors succeeded in growing human stem cells in the laboratory. It was hoped that these could be used to grow organs for transplantation. The two groups used different methods to isolate stem cells.

One group took cells from a 15-20 cell “pre-embryo” the blastocyst, about three days after fertilization. Each cell at this stage of development is “pluripotent” meaning that these cells have the capacity (potential) to become many different organs of the body. The stem cells may even be “totipotent”, meaning that they can become all organs in the body. At the blastocyst stage, all cells are the same (homologous). There is no way of knowing whether a particular cell of the blastocyst will become embryo or placenta. Once the embryo becomes differentiated from the placenta, the stem cells start to become specialized into those that become organs and lose
their potentiality to become anything else.

The second group isolated stem cells from the ‘germ cells’ of aborted fetuses. Germ cells give rise to eggs and sperms. These cells, unlike other cells in the developing fetus, are not directed to developing into particular organs. They remain “pluripotent” in order to carry their genetic information forward in the next generation. Stem cells taken from the germ cells of a fetus may be equivalent to the stem cells taken from the blastocyst.

Stem cells are found to grow indefinitely and are thus immortal. Cells only become mortal (losing their ability to divide and grow indefinitely) after they become specialized after organogenesis, the organ forming stage of development.

Scientists are now beginning to develop stem cells into organs for transplantation. This technique is in its infancy. Experiments have been carried out on mice; for example, if a stem cell from a mouse is injected into the heart of another mouse, the injected stem cells will grow into cells of the heart of the recipient mouse. This has great therapeutic value in that a diabetic person may be treated with stem cells injected into his pancreatic tissue. Cells capable of producing insulin may develop and the diabetic condition may be cured. The same technique may be carried out in persons suffering from other debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s. Therefore, stem cell research has immense potential as a therapeutic technique in curing diseases which adversely affect the health and well being of millions of human beings.

Christian Understanding Of Man / Anthropos

Science considers humans as part of the natural world belonging to the Animal Kingdom. Philosophy categorizes humans as rational beings capable of thinking and making rational choices and decisions. The Judeo-Christian understanding of “anthropos” (human being) as created by God is quite different in that, in addition to these qualities, humans “are created a little lower than God (angels) and bestowed with dignity and honor”(Ps.8:4).

This concept of anthropos (man or woman) is derived from the Holy Scriptures, as clearly stated in Genesis chapters 1-3. It is emphasized that God created ‘man’ in His “image and likeness”(Gen.1:26,27). In Genesis 2:7 it is written “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Oxford Bible), “a living soul”(King James Bible). This divine “inspiration” has been identified by Church Fathers as ‘Soul’ or ‘Spirit of God’ which animates the human life from the beginning, that is, from the time of fertilization or conception. The Book of Job says “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me together”, “You clothed me with skin and flesh and knit me together with bones and sinews” (Job 10:8,11). In Psalm 139 it is written “For it was You who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mothers womb” (v.13). Psalm 139 continues “I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, Wonderful are your works: that I know very well, My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance, in your books were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (14-16). God formed the embryo in the womb (poetically called the depths of the earth) and knew the psalmist’s character from the moment of conception (Oxford Bible). In Exodus 21:22, accidental miscarriage of an embryo is discussed; the embryo is referred to as FORMED, thus making a distinction between a fetus and embryo as ‘unformed’ and ‘formed’.

The real question is “when does a human fetus receive the soul and therefore be considered a person with dignity and deserving respect?” The Biblical idea is that the body and the soul are formed at the same time, at the very time of fertilization or conception. This means that from the time of fertilization of the egg, the beginning of a human being, a human person “created in the image and likeness of God” is in the making hence this human being (soul) should be considered a person deserving respect and dignity.

The New Testament authors further develop this idea. For example, Luke 1:44 describes John the Baptist as a baby in the womb of his mother Elizabeth recognizing baby Jesus in Mother Mary’s womb and dancing with joy. These two babies have been considered as human beings, persons relating to one another and not as fetuses in the processes of development without faculties of perception or without emotions. Therefore the idea is that God creates the ‘soul’ with the body from the very beginning so the human person can participate from the very beginning in the life of God and in the life of other human beings. There is no real distinction between embryo, fetus and child as is made by those who advocate cloning and stem cell research. These are developmental stages of a human being very similar to human stages, baby, child, youth, adult etc. and the person has to be respected as he has legal rights which have to be protected.

The act of conception creates an ‘ensouled’ person who bears the image and likeness of God, whose destiny is to behold the Lord from the beginning of his/her existence to the very end of life and even beyond life. So from an Orthodox Christian perspective; destruction of a fertilized egg, or a blastocyst, or an embryo, or a fetus, is destruction of an invaluable human life and is unacceptable. This is the stand taken, as I understand, of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the United Nations charter and other human rights organizations.

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