The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A MORAL DILEMMA: STEM CELL RESEARCH

Delivered 8/14/05
Text: Psalm 139:1-17; Genesis 2:4-7
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Should we or shouldn't we? What brings the issue to mind, of course, is that stem cell research has been in the news again lately. Two weeks ago, the US Senate's Republican majority leader, Bill Frist, announced that he has decided to support a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research, something opposed by President Bush who is threatening to veto the measure if it passes. In the rather lengthy speech, Senator Frist said that while he has reservations about altering Mr. Bush's current policy, which, for the past four years, has placed strict limits on taxpayer financing for the work, he supports the bill nonetheless. "While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases. Therefore, I believe the president's policy should be modified." Senator Frist should know something about this issue since, prior to his entry into politics, he was a heart-lung transplant surgeon.

Mr. Frist's move will undoubtedly change the political landscape in the debate which is one of the thorniest moral issues to come before Congress. The chief House sponsor of the bill, Representative Michael Castle, Republican of Delaware, said, "His support is of huge significance." The stem cell bill has already passed in the House of Representatives but it has been stalled in the Senate. Because Mr. Frist's colleagues look to him for advice on medical matters, his support for the bill could break the logjam.

The move could also have implications for Mr. Frist's political future, because he is known to be interested in his own run for the White House in 2008, and supporting an expansion of the policy will put him at odds not only with Mr. Bush but also with religious conservatives, whose support he will need in the race for the Republican nomination. On the other hand, the decision could also help him win support among centrists. "I am pro-life," Mr. Frist said in the speech, arguing that he can reconcile his support for the science with his own Christian faith. "I believe human life begins at conception." But at the same time, he says, "I also believe that embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and supported."

A little excursion into science here. Human embryonic stem cells are considered by scientists to be the building blocks of a new field of regenerative medicine. The cells, extracted from human embryos, have the potential to grow into any type of tissue in the body, and advocates for patients believe they hold the potential for treatments and cures for a whole range of diseases. But the cells cannot be obtained without destroying human embryos, which opponents of the research say is tantamount to murder. "An embryo is nascent human life," Mr. Frist said in his speech, adding: "This position is consistent with my faith. But, to me, it isn't just a matter of faith. It's a fact of science."

What started the controversy was a speech made by President Bush four years ago in which he said the government would pay only for research on stem cell colonies, or lines, already created, so that the work would involve only those embryos "where the life or death decision has already been made." He saw that posture as a compromise between the positions of those who would say any research on human embryos was wrong, and those who wanted to move forward with the research, full-speed ahead.

In recent years, researchers have been saying that there are no longer enough of those stem cell "lines" to work on, and some of those that existed four years ago are now degraded and of no use in scientific exploration. The bill currently being debated would expand the original policy by allowing research on stem cell lines extracted from frozen embryos, left over from fertility treatments, that would be discarded anyway.

For what it is worth, that science of in vitro fertilization has, over the past 20 years, resulted in 150,000 babies born in the United States and over 1-million world-wide, and, if you recall, there was quite a bit of controversy about that when it was first done. Remember? If a couple cannot have a baby, too bad - who are we to be playing God? No one asks that question now, and the result is that the 2.1 million married couples in America with infertility problems have some options. However, besides all those babies that have come from these treatments, another result has been the production of unused embryos (they always make spares) -- 400,000 of which are currently in frozen storage.

Last weekend Public Radio's regular Religion & Ethics program explored the moral, ethical and religious choices couples face when dealing with the issue of frozen embryos.(1) Pamela Madsen, whose fertility treatments produced two sons, says the choice of how to deal with excess embryos is not an easy one: "These embryos were not made casually. They were made with love, forethought and caring, and a product of our marriage. They are not nothing. They are unique and something wonderful should be done with them."

The question is what? There are essentially four choices: discard the unused embryos, which is what most people do; donate the embryos to another infertile couple; donate the embryos for research; or do nothing and continue to pay storage fees which can run as much as $1,500 a year.

For Kurt and Robin Houk of Stow, Ohio, who found themselves unable to have any more children after the birth of their daughter Sara, and who turned to in vitro fertilization to increase the size of their family, it worked...big time. They wound up with triplets plus seven remaining embryos, which were then frozen. Kurt said, "We feel life begins at conception so we didn't want to destroy the embryos. We felt that would be killing a baby. Second, we wanted to know what happened to a child that would be born. We wanted to make sure that a child born would be raised in the church." The Houks, who are Lutheran, turned to a California Christian adoption agency which has a special program called "Snowflakes" to handle what they call "embryo adoptions." The Houks chose to donate their embryos to Keith and Amy Fisher of Arizona who are now the proud parents of little Samantha.

For Pamela Madsen and her husband Kai, donation to another couple is not an option. Pamela says, "That is because it would be giving up a full sibling to our children. And I won't have an answer to that child who may one day come back. And many children come back and say, why wasn't there room in your home for me? I don't have that answer." Donating their four unused frozen embryos for scientific research is becoming the Madsen's likely choice. Unlike the Houks, they do not believe life begins at conception, nor that the embryos are babies. Still, they take their choice very seriously. Good for them.

So what is the answer? It is not a simple one, that is certain. The way I have found helpful for dealing with difficult moral or ethical questions as a Christian is a six-step formula. The first step is to go to the Bible. What does the Bible - our primary rule for faith and practice - have to say on the subject? Well, as you might surmise, nothing. At least, nothing directly. The technology is too new. For those who take the position that human life begins at conception, they quickly say "Thou shalt not kill" handles the question nicely - anything done to destroy the embryo is murder. Case closed. On the other hand, some look to the Bible and the creation story and note that the first man became a living being when God breathed the breath of life into him. Breath equals life. The Bible is simply not clear on this issue, whether we like it or not.(2)

Since step one does not give us a definitive answer, we move to step two, the Church. What has the church universal said throughout history on the issue? Again, the matter is too new to have much said about it. All statements have been recent. The difficulty we quickly encounter here is that the church is not speaking with one voice. Depending on whom you listen to, you will hear some say yes to this new science and some say no.

Which leads to step three - what does your own faith tradition say on the subject? Fortunately, for us who are Presbyterians, we do find some guidance here. Back in 2001, prior to President Bush's August announcement of limitation on federal funding for stem cell research, word had leaked that he was considering such a position. In response to that prospect, our PCUSA General Assembly, some six weeks before Mr Bush's speech, approved a statement on the issue. After an extensive preamble that acknowledged the moral and ethical questions raised, they concluded:
The 213th General Assembly (2001) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirms the use of fetal tissue and embryonic tissue for vital research. Our respect for life includes respect for the embryo and fetus, and we affirm that decisions about embryos and fetuses need to be made with responsibility. Therefore, we believe that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other faith groups should educate their members in making these very difficult ethical decisions. With careful regulation, we affirm the use of human stem cell tissue for research that may result in the restoring of health to those suffering from serious illness. We affirm our support for stem cell research, recognizing that this research moves to a new and challenging frontier. We recognize the need for continuing, informed public dialogue and equitable sharing of information of the results of stem cell research. It is only with such public dialogue and information sharing that our diverse society can build a foundation for responsible movement toward this frontier that offers enormous hope and challenge.(3)
That position was reaffirmed last year when the Assembly approved an additional statement proposed by two commissioners from California. It read in part,
As we remember former President Ronald Reagan and share in expressing our compassion and condolences to Nancy Reagan [Presbyterians, by the way], the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), through its General Assembly, should make our feelings visible...Nancy Reagan has pleaded with the current...administration to increase funding and encourage stem cell research so that other patients and their families may so reap the benefits of healing from diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries, and other conditions that have been considered hopeless in the past. "A lot of people who could be helped are not being helped," Mrs. Reagan has stated. It is hoped that our presence in Washington, D.C., and our voice being heard in the ongoing political debate can result in many lives being improved through this applied research and future medical advancements.(4)
OK. Now we are getting somewhere. We proceed to step four, common sense. What does our common sense tell us about this issue? Several things, actually, and most of them are surrounded with red flags. Common sense says listen to all sides of the debate critically. In doing so, we hear some making incredible claims about what this research will accomplish while others are not nearly so optimistic. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Common sense says some safeguards should be initiated if for no other reason than, if someone can make a buck by making and selling embryos, they will do it. That is dangerous. Common sense says that this issue should be above partisan politics. The scientific community should propose some intelligent regulatory guidelines to manage this research and then Congress should respond with appropriate legislation. If science and religion have always had a tenuous relationship, science and politics are even worse.

Step number five in dealing with difficult issues: Christian concern. If we take seriously Christ's commandment to love God and neighbor, and if we are still not satisfied with the guidelines we get from any other source, a good approach to an ethical question would be to ask, "What is the most loving response in this situation?" Christian concern will sometimes prevent us from coming up with a too hasty moralistic answer to some questions.

Concerning this particular issue, we have heard some heart-rending testimony from Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox, the late Christopher Reeve and others pleading for stem cell research to be expanded in our nation. Stem cells have the potential to provide therapeutic benefits for coronary heart disease (approximately 12.9 million cases in the US), type I diabetes (1.7 million cases), spinal cord injuries (200,000 cases), Parkinson's disease (1.5 million cases), Alzheimer's disease (4 million cases) and others. Considering the number of individuals affected by these diseases in the United States alone, there is tremendous potential for relieving considerable suffering.(5) And remember, we already have 400,000 embryos sitting on ice.

The sixth and final step is a request for guidance. The Epistle of James, chapter one, verse, five: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." Wonderful promise. If you want to sort through a difficult ethical issue but have not been able to get any clear answer through any of the other five steps, this is the court of last resort.

So where does all this leave us about stem cell research? The Bible is not as clear on the subject as we might wish. The church universal has not spoken with one voice on the issue. Our Presbyterian Church HAS spoken and says the research is fine but should be carefully done. Common sense says there are issues that ought to be addressed in the process, and as free of politics as possible. Our Christian concern notes how many people can potentially be helped by these efforts. And finally, I think our prayer for wisdom has already been answered.

Decisions, decisions. I read somewhere of an old farmer who had hired a local boy to sort the potatoes. He wanted him to separate them into three piles: small, medium, and large. After only a couple of hours, the young fellow came to the farmer and, in great frustration, told him he was quitting. "Why?" the farmer asked. "Is the job too hard for you?"

"No," the boy answered, "but the decisions are killing me."

We know the feeling. Six steps to making tough decisions - First, what does the Bible say? Second, what has the church universal historically said? Third, what has our own denomination said? Fourth, what does our common sense say? Fifth, what does our Christian concern say? And sixth, what does the Holy Spirit say when we come in prayer with a request for wisdom?

There is no guarantee that each of us will come to exactly the same conclusions once we have gone through the steps. But if we go through the process, at least we CAN be certain that we have been faithful in seeking divine guidance as scripture instructs us to do. "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you" - one more gift of a gracious and loving Lord.

Amen!

1. Rebroadcast from July 4, 2003

2. Psalm 139:13-16 and Job 31:15 point to God's knowledge and creative activity prior to birth. Jeremiah 1:5 emphasizes God's relationship with Jeremiah prior to conception. None of the other passages frequently cited (Job 3:3, Isaiah 49:1, Psalm 51:5, Luke1:41-44) say anything concrete about when personhood is attained while Exodus 21:22-25 and Numbers 5:11-31could be interpreted to suggest that personhood is not immediately present at fertilization.

3. See the Minutes of the General Assembly PC(USA), 2001, pp-461-464

4. PC(USA) General Assembly, 2004, Commissioners Resolution 11-06

5. Robert A. Boomsma, "Embryonic Stem Cells and a Reformed Christian World View," http://www.trnty.edu/faculty/boomsma/research/PSCFstemcell.pdf

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