Stem Cell Research: An Orthodox Response

Written By: on Nov 1st, 2009 and filed under Articles, Youth And Faith.

called blastocyst. It shall be said primarily that the richest source of Human Stem Cells are until now known in the Human Embryo or blastocyst and studies there in are called Embryonic Stem Cell Research or ES Cell Research. There is a catch here, namely, if you want to take ES Cells, you need to create and destroy the embryo that is left over after taking the Stem Cells, for it loses its potential to develop into a full human being. Here creeps in the question of Christian Ethics and that is where Orthodoxy shall come up with an answer and also an explanation to why.

An Orthodox Response to Stem Cell Research

First of all, it needs to be said that no Christian Thoughts have expressed a concern over extraction of Stem Cells from an adult body. For example there are skin “stem cells” which constantly replace damaged or missing skin cells, hair stem cells which constantly renew, in most cases, damaged or missing hair cells and liver stem cells which constantly replace damaged or missing liver cells. Nor is there any problem in gaining Stem Cells from the Umbilical Cord blood of a newborn baby too. With ES Cell Research, for it aims to produce not only a line of each specific stem cell (heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidney, stomach, skin, eyes, brain, muscle, blood, etc.) that will be able to renew or replace itself so that organs can be generated for transplantation, and also the development of medical therapies which may assist in the recovery of damaged or lost tissues and organs. As this presupposes destruction of an Embryo, which is seen nothing but as murder and there by violating the sixth commandment given by the Lord to Moses, which primarily binds every Christian, no matter whether Orthodox or not, it becomes unacceptable. To reiterate, if Stem Cells can be extracted from an adult person’s body without damaging or mutilating his/her existence, it does not post any ethical question primarily. If Stem Cells can be extracted and kept stored from the Umbilical Cord of a human being for future use, it also does not pose any question primarily. However, if one creates a human embryo in laboratory to extract Stem Cells out of it and destroys it after it is being used in this fashion, it is unethical. More over, it is also seen unethical to store embryos for future use in this line of thought too, for every embryo has the potential to develop itself into a full human being and thereby becoming like you and me and can discuss like we here on the ethical issues over any scientific advancement. Therefore, let me go deep into the ES Cell Research from an Orthodox perspective.

An Orthodox Theological response to ES Cell Research

It has been postulated by the Jewish as well as Muslim theologians to when an embryo becomes a human and when does the soul adjoin the embryo. They had answered like after 14 days or 40 days or 3 months or even after 6 months etc. Catholic Theology upon the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas also has similar notions on the development of an embryo, which due to their common ancestry, the Protestant Churches also follow. When this question comes to Orthodox theological locus, we out rightly reserve ourselves from making statements. I compare this question to a similar one, namely, when during the Holy Eucharist does the bread become the Holy Body of the Lord and the wine the Holy Blood of the Lord. The Orthodox answer is we do not know. We know that the Holy Eucharist is one Unit and it s a mystery that the bread becomes the Holy Body and wine becomes Holy Blood and it is done by the Holy Spirit. From the beginning to the end, it is One Block of a process and a human analytical approach is not able to decipher the mystery there, which is not necessary as well. Similarly the inception of Soul into the human embryo is from the very moment of its creation to the birth of a child into this world and it is a process to be seen as one single block or unit. This further leads us to say that destruction or mutilation of an embryo is murder and it can not be advocated at all.

Value of human life begins from the moment that life begins in the womb of a mother. We have to see certain examples from the Holy Scriptures to substantiate this argument.

In Genesis 38, we see an interesting incident. Judah had three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er had his wife Tamar, and he died before her wife Tamar conceived. Judah asked Onan to observe the duty of a brother in law to her. However, Onan knew that if a child is thereby born to Tamar, that child will not be his rather his brothers and Onan spilled the sperm on the ground, when ever he went to his brother’s wife and he was killed by the Lord. We understand that the very beginning of a human being is put into question here by a person and even that is hated by the Lord. The act that leads to conception is according to the Lord’s plan and then how much more will be a conceived human zygote? To tamper with its right to exist is therefore sheer unethical.

Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, as Genesis chapter 1 attests. When does a human being receive the image and likeness of God? Orthodoxy will answer that right at the moment that the egg is fertilized with sperm and from then onwards it has the right to exist as the crown of creation of God. It is in the same fashion, without a masculine sperm though, that the embryo was formed in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril of Alexandria has categorically said about the human beginning of Jesus Christ as Son of God out of the womb of Mary that at the very moment of that the human embryo was created in the womb of St. Mary, the union of the Second person of the Holy Trinity occurred with it. There has not been a fraction of a second, a twinkling of an eye to separate between the creation of the human embryo in the womb of St. Mary and the union with the second person of the Holy Trinity. In other words, the human hypostasis, a combination of a rational body and soul, which is embedded in the embryo, has united with the divine hypostasis in the womb of St. Mary. If the incarnation took place in this fashion, how can we dispute the dignity of the embryo as a lump of cells and not a human being? Human Embryonic Stem Cells [ESC] are cells that are derived from the inner 100 cell mass of a blastocyst embryo. This is the developmental stage of an embryo that is approximately six to seven days old and ready for implantation into the uterine wall of a woman. To remove the ESC for further specialization into tissues and organs, the embryo must be destroyed

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1 Response for “Stem Cell Research: An Orthodox Response”

  1. Suraj Iype says:

    Excellent article from Fr Dr Mathew which really underlines the teaching of the Orthodox Church on the rights of unborn children .

    This article was a real pleasure to read.

    Suraj Iype

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