A Life To Be Or Not To Be

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

Ethical And Theological Issues

From the outset, it has to be emphasized that the Orthodox Christian view point is NOT against scientific research or against developing techniques to help cure debilitating diseases or against minimizing human suffering. In fact the Orthodox Christian understanding is that God has bestowed humans with gifts to experiment and discover techniques and cures for the benefit not only of humans but also of all His creation. Humans have been placed in authority over His creation as priests and kings to exercise caution and to carefully manage human affairs as representatives of God. All life is precious, especially human life. And it is His will that necessary conditions and environmental factors be maintained and preserved for the sustenance and continuation of life. No one has any right to destroy life or to create conditions that may endanger or cause destruction of life, especially human life.

The United Kingdom and Holland have legalized research in which widespread cloning of human beings will be carried out. A question has been raised as to whether cloned babies have souls. This question is from a false premise. No matter whether a baby is produced naturally or by cloning, the Christian view affirms that the baby is a human being or a living soul who should not be deliberately killed or destroyed. It is infanticide and is abhorrent to God and to all believing Christians, irrespective of denominational differences and to others who value human life, dignity and worth. ‘Soul’ is the transcendent aspect of our being. It is distinct from the ‘flesh’ that is ‘dust’ which returns to dust at the time of physical death.

Considering the three purposes for which human cloning are currently being attempted; the “reproductive cloning” (producing a human being by artificial vegetative method) may be acceptable if the child thus produced is not destroyed, but is generated for a mother or a couple who have no other way to have a baby of their own. This too may be debatable and there may be restrictions. Some may advocate adoption as a safer way to have and to own a baby. It is the responsibility of the Church or the community to assist people to arrive at a right decision by counseling or by guidance when they have to make difficult choices.

”Therapeutic cloning” to generate embryonic stem cells may be acceptable if the stem cells are from other sources which did not cause the deliberate death of a human being.

“Nucleus reprogramming” may be useful, but it may have other complications such as changes in genetic composition and configuration. As these experimental procedures are all in their infancy, no one, not even the scientists engaged in them, can safely or with any certainty predict what the results will be and how they would affect the human race in the future. So extreme caution should be exercised when tampering with the human genome.

The imagination can run wild when considering the future scenarios resulting from human cloning. Human cloning may eventually give rise to a race, or many races, of individuals who have no family ties, and who may look alike and may act alike or may take orders instinctively like a colony of bees or termites or of super humans. Scientists have produced rats with a brain that is partly human. The possibility exists that human beings may be produced with an animal brain or with other body parts. Chimeras may eventually be created. Scientific fiction may become reality in human life. The world may be different in ways that no one can imagine or predict. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, in His capacity as creator. Their children are now taking up their cause and we do not know what destiny awaits them.

Any treatment of the human embryo or fetus evokes emotional and ethical concerns as it affects the dignity and potential of the human person. The three-day old blastocyst is a “pre embryo” and any particular cell of the blastocyst is as likely to become part of the embryo as it is to become part of the placenta that may be discarded at birth. However, it is taken for granted by some that the “pre embryo” is not even an embryo. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Austria, and Denmark have approved experimentation with human ‘pre-embryos’ i.e. they have all approved research on the human embryo up to the 14th day of development at which time the primitive streak will develop into the brain and the spinal column and the embryo will be differentiated from the placenta. As there is no possibility of the embryo sensing pain and there is no sentience (have no other faculty for perception), the assumption of these countries, seems to be that they may be subjected to experimentation and destruction.

This is not acceptable from a Christian point of view, because, by whatever name we call the developing human embryo, it is a human person in the process of development, who deserves respect and who has certain inalienable rights as a human being.

Pre-embryos not used in IVF are sometimes donated for research with informed consent from donors. These pre-embryos will never be implanted in a woman’s uterus and never be allowed to develop into individual human beings but will be discarded after two or three years. This was banned in 1995. However, from 1999, the ban on research has been lifted and research on embryonic stem cells was allowed. The National Institute of Health (NIH) in the U.S. has approved creation of “pre embryos” specifically for research if there were not enough ‘surplus’ pre-embryos donated after in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

The proposed research does not depend upon continued use of pre-embryos, as once the stem cells are isolated from the blastocyst, they can grow indefinitely in the laboratory, so new blastocysts from new embryos are not necessary. Therefore, the defenders of stem cell research assert, research on embryos and fetuses that would otherwise be thrown away, does not cause indignity to human life. This appears to be harmless but is questionable since; to start with, embryos have to be destroyed to harvest stem cells to grow more stem cells.

The human embryo, at the time of conception is an ‘ensouled’ human being, no matter whether it is a ‘pre-embryo of 14 days or a 15-day-old fetus or a baby developing and growing up to the time of birth. There is no real meaning in categorization by different names to mislead the general public into thinking that these embryos are not human babies in the making. Therefore, destroying any fetus after conception is dishonoring a human being who would other wise have developed into a person, with dignity and legal identity. So, for an Orthodox Christian, destruction of the embryo at any stage of growth for experimental purposes is tantamount to committing murder and is never acceptable from a biological, moral, ethical or spiritual point of view and should in no way be accepted or tolerated. All Christians should openly oppose such inhuman practices and exert their influence through the legal and moral means at their disposal.

From this perspective, extracting stem cells from a blastocyst (a living developing human embryo) for experimental purposes or medical purposes is unacceptable, because the innocent, defenseless potential human being is thus harmed and the fetus is at the mercy of another human being. Unless this person is working for the good of that particular baby, he is denying dignity and legal status of that child who, by International Law and the Charter of the United Nations, need to be protected and allowed to grow to its full potential as a member of the community at large. No scientist or politician has the right to deprive any baby of its “right to life, dignity and pursuit of happiness”.

Stem cells from older humans or from the placenta or discarded cell mass, may be used for scientific research, organ development for transplantation or for curing diseases which have debilitating effect or which may be fatal to human beings.

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