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Stem Cell Research: An Orthodox Response

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It is always presumed by the World that Christian Orthodoxy is a path that is old and outdated that it can not have any constructive and positive response to any problem from the modern world of epistemological advancement. Is this true?

Stem Cell Research is a very modern field of medical research and it postulates a number of goodies towards curing from degenerative illnesses and ailments that can have a permanent bearing upon the suffering human being. Does Orthodoxy blindly oppose Stem Cell Research? It is worth to ponder upon these questions.

Primarily Orthodoxy has a fundamental approach towards knowledge creating techniques, however, it s not fundamentalistic. I want to draw a line between being fundamental and fundamentalistic. In the second chapter of the Gospel according to Mark (23-28|| Mt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5), there is an incidence in which Jesus confronts people asking Him why His disciples were plucking and eating heads of grain during Sabbath. Jesus’ response is very simple. Sabbath is for humans and humans are not for Sabbath. Orthodoxy has a very similar approach towards every controversial question. Is it for human good or are we simply arguing for the sake of arguments? Orthodoxy postulates that every knowledge shall be for the human improvement and otherwise it is not good, which is the direct teaching of Jesus Christ and when it comes to Stem Cell Research as well, we have a very same stand point. It has to be for the human good that we support it.

My words did imply a negating notion towards Stem Cell research, I hope and exactly the opposite is my intention. Orthodoxy does not oppose Stem Cell Research out rightly. If it opposes something, it shall have a very genuine reason to do so as well. Now, what is the stand of Orthodoxy towards this modern question that has a very genuine bearing on human curing as it is being popularized and advocated? In order to go deep into this question, it would be wise to briefly describe what Stem Cell Research is as well as its advantages and disadvantages In brief.

Stem Cell Research

Stem cells are capable of renewing themselves over and over again and hence the term ‘stem.’ In other words, stem cells are a type of ‘ancestor’ cell in humans and animals, which have two special properties. They are able to renew themselves to produce many more stem cells in perpetuity. They can also differentiate into specialized cells which then serve particular, specific functions in body tissues (bone, muscle, nerve etc.). Stem cells are present in the early embryo which differentiates to make all the cells of the eventual body. Stem cells are also found in some tissues of the adult human or animal, in the fetus, and in placental cord blood. These normally develop only into the cells associated with the particular organ or system of the body. In the adult, stem cells serve the function of maintaining healthy tissues or repairing damage inflicted by disease or injury. Perturbation of these renewal processes can lead to the death of the cells (and eventually of the organism). Their uncontrolled growth can, on the other hand, lead to cancer.

The first isolation of human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) in the USA in 1998 was widely seen in scientific and medical circles as a landmark event. It opened up the possibility of a potentially unlimited source of cells which could be used to replace cells lost in serious, and largely incurable, degenerative human diseases and other conditions. A matter of concern is the rhetoric sometimes accompanying both these claims and those made for adult and placental cord stem cells. These have often raised expectations which go far beyond what can presently be justified by the state of a science which is still in its early stages. While there is indeed exciting potential, a degree of caution is therefore needed, for many of these developments and possibilities raise important ethical and theological questions.

There are mainly three sources of Stem Cells. Stem Cells come from an adult body, from the Umbilical Cord of a new born child and from the very young and yet to begin cell division human embryo, 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 before implantation. Comparing this six or seven days old embryo with the six to seven days old embryo within the womb of St. Mary gives us better understanding of the situation. Moreover, let us imagine how important and dignified an embryo will be for the Creator Lord, who has willed to unite Himself to an embryo during its creation.

The Scriptures teach that the unborn is a human being. However, some theologians define human being as a being possessed specific characteristics or attributes, such as hobbies, sentiments and a conscience awareness to be classified as a person. Thus, since the embryo doesn’t fit this definition or possess certain characteristics or attributes, it can’t be a human person, only a human being that will become a person sometime after birth. This is a capacity-based notion on human being because it separates the doctrine of created man as a body and rational soul. The person is a part of that embodied created human. Therefore, the embryo is a human being with a body and a rational soul.

Exodus 21:22 assists us in our understanding that the unborn are a human being. It reads: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.” The Hebrew word for “child,” (yeledah) is the Hebrew word that describes unborn (Exodus 21:22), newborn (Exodus 1:18), teenager (Genesis 21:15; 37:30), and middle-aged adults STEM (Cf. 2 Chronicles 10:8, 10, 14). This leads us to say that yeled, at least for bilical prose, suggested or hinted at the personhood of the fetus since the same term could apply to persons. Hence, whereas Exodus 21:22 does not directly address the personhood of the fetus, the passage does intimate, by using yeled instead of golem (translated ‘unformed substance’ Psalm 139:16) and nepel (Psalm 58:9), that the fetus is more than parental property. It is a yeled, a human being, a child, a fetus with personhood.
Stem cell research on spare defrosted human embryos is contrary to the Word of God. It trivializes not only the doctrine of the incarnation, but also views parenting as producing children as products or commodities.

This abandoning of human embryos to stem cell research contradicts the parents’ role to raise their children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-3). These embryonic children are the work of God given to parents in order to love, nurture, and cherish to His glory.
More passages can be cited to establish the claim that God knows, calls and loves each person before birth just as much as after (Ps. 139:13-16; Jer. 1:5; Is. 49:1; Gal. 1:15, etc.). Jesus and John the Baptist are announced before their conception (Matt. 1:18; Lk. 1:13, 31). Isaiah, Jeremiah and Paul admit to being called to particular tasks before or during their time in the womb. The book of Hebrews refers to Levi the priest being, at one time, “still in the loins of his ancestor”, referring to his great-grandfather Abraham. (Heb. 7:10). All this suggests that God’s knowledge of people is not limited to a timeslot after birth but extends back “beyond the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

In this context we need to further out our discussion with the following questions too, namely,

(1) The moral, legal, scientific, and Scriptural view of ‘what does it mean to be human?’
(2) The destruction of human embryos as a means to an end.
(3) The source of stem cells from donated, as well as unwanted and abandoned frozen embryos.
(4) The issue of complicity as it relates to others who use and destroy embryos donated by infertile couples.
(5) The relationship of ESCell Research to elective abortions.
(6) The Scriptural view of procreation and parenting within the context of marriage.

If the embryo can be understood the weakest and least advantaged of our fellow human beings, no community is really strong if it will not carry its weakest members. Against the background of such a question, we reflect upon the significance of stem cell research as it relates to caring for the weakest members of the body of Christ, the human embryo, which is narrated as the bricks in the temple of the living God as St. Paul says (II Cor 6:16) and God will destroy the one, who destroys the temple of God (I Cor 3: 16-17).

The human embryo is created in the image and likeness of God. This image was lost by transgression of the commandment of Adam and Eve in the fall into sin, but restored and renewed for humankind by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the image of God (Philipians 2:6; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Therefore, we do not kill, but help, befriend, and support the unborn embryo in every bodily need. Viewing the destructive use of stem cell research on human embryos through the cross of Jesus, all human life, from the zygote [fertilized egg] to the embryo to the fetus to the newborn to the older adult belongs to the Lord, its Creator and Redeemer (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Therefore, in short, the Orthodox Theology can not undersign ES Cell research for furtherance. What it can maximum say is to advance adult Stem Cell research as well as umbilical cord stem Cell research, or Stem Cells from the Amniotic fluid, or normal skin cells that can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state. Science has now advanced to the level of producing a stem cell from almost any other human cell instead of using embryos as needed previously, albeit the risk of tumorigenesis remains to be determined. These are the ways which do not harm the existence of the crown of creation by God.

And in this very context that we have to review the move by President Obama, who signed the release of federal funding into embryonic stem cell research on 9th of March this year.

Email: Fr. Dr. Jacob Mathew at [email protected]