The Orthodox Christian anthropology with its understanding of the eternal value of the human person, though it considers him a sinner, acknowledges that the chief purpose of human existence is to glorify God and to enter into eternal and blissful communion with God. This implies that there could be no manipulation of the human person on a personal level or on a cellular level, unless that manipulation is for strict therapeutic purposes that will serve the best interests of the person concerned. This necessarily excludes experimentation using viable human embryos which are full persons and not a mere mass of tissue.
We need to oppose the manipulation and destruction of human embryos, particularly since stem cells obtained from the placenta and the umbilical cord have been shown to have as great a therapeutic potential as their embryonic counterparts. The human person created in the image of God and called to progress toward the divine likeness is unique and of infinite value. Any attempt to dismantle that person into its component parts or to reproduce that person through cloning is an offense not only against human rights and human dignity, it is also an offense against God who creates and loves each person, and calls each one without exception to share forever in His divine love.
An interesting article appeared in the New York Times on October 11, 2005 entitled “Embryonic cells, No Embryo needed, Hunting for ways out of an impasse” by medical scientists from California and from M.I.T in Boston. They have advocated, on the basis of their research, that embryonic stem cells may be developed without destroying live human embryos. This theme was commented on by the same paper on Tuesday October 18th, 2005 in an editorial entitled “Stem Cells side shows”.
I quote the editorial below: “Scientists experimenting with mice have devised two new ways to derive embryonic stem cells without destroying viable embryos. The work is being hailed for its potential to sidestep some of the ethical controversies that have slowed stem cell research in this country. But each of the new techniques raises ethical issues of its own, and neither is apt to be ready for use in humans for many years.
These and other approaches to deriving stem cells without destroying embryos clearly deserve further research, but they must not be allowed to halt or slow the most proven method of obtaining embryonic stem cells – extracting them from human embryos that are inevitably destroyed in the process.
One technique, developed by scientists at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass, is comparable to a procedure already performed at in vitro fertilization clinics to diagnose genetic defects. An embryo is allowed to grow to eight cells, then one cell is plucked out and the remaining seven allowed to go on and develop. In the clinic, the eighth cell would be tested for genetic defects. The new work shows that it could instead be used to derive stem cells.
Unfortunately, the approach has drawbacks. Although some 2,000 babies have been born after a cell was extracted for genetic diagnosis, there is little data on the safety of the procedure or the long-term health of the children. Some ethicists deem it unethical to impose even a small risk on the embryo by extracting a cell just to create stem cells. Moreover the technique has limited scientific value because it cannot produce a stem cell with the exact genetic make up of a particular individual.
The other technique, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a variant of the method known as ‘therapeutic cloning’, which can produce exact genetic matches but is anathema to religious conservatives because it involves first creating and then destroying a human embryo. The M.I.T. research demonstrates the feasibility of an approach recommended by William Hurlbut, a Stanford professor and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, to avoid ethical objections. Insteadof creating a full-fledged embryo, the scientists manipulated genes to create embryo-like entities that were incapable of implanting in the uterus.
Some critics consider it morally objectionable to genetically engineer a defective embryo that can’t implant. But advocates of this approach believe it can be refined to produce disorganized clumps of tissue that will be deemed biological artifacts, not nascent life. It would be great if some way could be found to produce embryonic stem cells of high scientific value without raising ethical objections. But until that day comes, it would be foolish to abandon proven techniques just to meet the ethical objections of a minority.” (N.Y. Times Editorial comments of October18, 2005)
This position is somewhat balanced. However, this view seems to imply that genetic engineering of a baby can lead to many complications. When so many people object to and refuse to eat a tomato or any other plant product because they are genetically altered, how would they accept a human baby who is genetically altered without really understanding or finding out the consequences that may affect the future life of the resultant baby?
Also the idea that it is the objection of a “minority” is questionable. Has the majority of the populace been made aware or educated in this field to find out their considered opinion on this very important matter? Or has a careful study been undertaken by a competent and objective organization other than big pharmaceutical companies and commercial interests?
The relevant questions are; “is a human embryo of the same value as an embryo of a dog or a sheep? Should they be treated and experimented with in the same fashion? What is the meaning of human dignity and worth? Has any human being the right or ownership to give a baby in the making or an unborn baby for experimental purposes and for eventual destruction? Has an unborn baby the same and equal rights as a newborn baby? Why are mothers jailed for abandoning or killing their unwanted newly born infants? Do we have double standards in this matter?
Infant sacrifice practiced in some ancient or primitive cultures has been widely and loudly condemned as uncivilized barbarity. Such practices are now dressed in a ‘modern civilized’ attire in order to fool the general public by disguising the truth that human beings are being experimented with and destroyed in the process. Supporters are emphasizing the benefits that may be reaped by sacrificing the human embryo that has been created to offer at the altar of scientific research.
Do we defend the defenseless human infants who, if they had the ability, would say “our lives, to be or not to be”? Unfortunately it seems that very few of the general public have listened to their silent cry for help and redemption.
Please Note: These are controversial subjects. I have tried to state the facts as objectively as I can. Our Church had not yet expressed an official opinion on these matters. It is hoped that this first article may stimulate some thinking: and as a result comments may be forthcoming. The article is mine and I accept full responsibility for any mistakes. In preparing this paper, I have relied on information from the Internet and from scholars and ethicists especially some articles of Fr. John Breck, eminent theologian and ethicist of the Orthodox Church of America. I would highly recommend his recent book “God with us”, published by the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, for further reading.