Monday, June 06, 2005

Stem Cell Research: Going Behind the Headlines

It is being referred to as the great embryonic stem cell research debate but the phrase is anything but correct. For how can there be an actual debate when only one side is represented? I'd like to do here a little of what the mainstream media is failing to do; namely, give a few facts surrounding the truly crucial controversy of using cells obtained from aborted children in scientific research.

The first issue to be examined, of course, is IVF itself – in vitro fertilization. This is the practice of using human sperm to fertilize human eggs which, guess what, results in human beings! This is a biological fact that no amount of silly talk or use of euphemism can alter. In vitro fertilization involves the conception of human children with all of the chromosomes, the DNA, the "biological stuff" that defines any human embryo.

Why in vitro fertilization is allowed in the first place is another important issue. It arises from infertile couples wanting a baby so badly that scientists have developed this highly unnatural and extremely dangerous pursuit. Why unnatural? It's rather obvious. A petri dish is not a woman's womb, nor is a reliance on the amoral scientific community reflective of a contented trust in the providence of God. And regarding the extreme danger? In order to get a higher rate of success in the desired effect of pregnancy, the scientists generally fertilize several receptive eggs to introduce into the mother's womb. The scientist does this even though he is well aware that most of these fertilized eggs (tiny boys and girls) will not make it. But, so what? The insistence on giving physical birth to one's own child mandates this ironic sacrifice. "Create for me four or five...or even nine or ten little children so that eventually one or two will make it and become my very own biological child."

But alas, the world has grown quite used to in vitro fertilization – and that includes Christians. Is it any wonder then that there is so little outrage when scientists start using these fertilized eggs in less personal and more pragmatic ways such as dehumanizing scientific research?

The biological realities, once again, are clear. In vitro fertilization produces human boys and girls – not mere petri dish specimens...not "embryo-like entities"...not globs of impersonal tissue. Fertilized eggs, in point of fact, are no longer eggs at all but developing babies fully deserving of our respect and our protection.

Some proponents of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) admit that the human beings created by in vitro are up for grabs. No one has cared previously what happens to these embryos, say the scientists, so why not do whatever we want to with them? Such is the attitude of those affiliated with the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Virginia. They have openly boasted that they've paid women between $1500 and $2000 apiece for their eggs and then used those eggs to create embryos for the express purpose of destroying them and using the cells for research. The scientists here contend that this certainly is as ethical as using frozen embryos leftover from in vitro attempts. In fact, their argument suggests that freshly created embryos will be better for their research purposes than "thawed-out" ones.

Now this recent press release from the Jones Institute was a shocker. After all, most of the previous talk had centered on those frozen embryos that had been "extras" in IVF cases. So there were a few red faces among ESCR proponents after the Jones remarks, especially because the Institute's crass and commercial attitude was all too clear. However, the actual complaints all were directed at the timing of the press release, not at the ideology itself. Therefore, with President Bush considering the issue and with Mary Tyler Moore and others getting rave reviews for their espousal of ESCR on humanitarian grounds, the Jones Institute revelations were embarrassingly unwelcome. But the failure to condemn the Jones Institute shows that frozen embryos represent only the first wave for researchers. Terminate the frozen embryos today to keep the research going; tomorrow, the ready-to-make embryos will fill the need. The fact is, my friends, there are no moral boundaries at all recognized by these people. Therefore, releasing federal funds, as President Bush is being pressured to do, would surely result in increasing the deliberate creation of human embryos for no other purpose whatsoever than for them to be snuffed out so that their cells could be used in experiments.

Of course, such facts do not yet sound "nice" to the American public; therefore, the apologists in both the scientific community and the media have taken a different approach. They have manipulated language, the scientific facts, and emotions to create a smokescreen that hides the true issues. And, of course, the proponents of embryonic stem cell research have gone on the attack too, trying to cast their dissenters as religious fanatics who are somehow fans of disease! Even supposedly pro-life politicians have joined the chorus. Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is now claiming that human life doesn't really begin at conception at all but rather when the blastocyst implants itself in the mother's womb! The biological facts clearly show Senator Hatch's foolishness but he's well aware that he's playing an old trick – one that has been used time and again to defend abortifiacient actions when done by chemicals, IUD's, even the birth control pill. No, like many of his cowardly colleagues, Senator Hatch knows better but he's desperately looking for an excuse to cave in to the politically correct crowd. But again... when a sperm merges with an egg, a baby begins. The entire genetic makeup of that new human boy or girl is resident right there, right then. From that miraculous moment on, the little one requires only the protective and nurturing environment of a woman's womb. It is at birth that the world can finally see the miracle that began at the moment of conception, but the Almighty God that superintends the whole process and Whose judgment is oh-so-severe on hands that would destroy innocent human life at any point in its development --- well, God sees the incredible drama from start to finish.

Finally, it must also be emphasized that the supporters of embryonic stem cell research have made the most vaunted but yet unprovable claims regarding the wide range of diseases that will be cured. The facts are that the research using the cells of aborted babies has been shown in case after case to offer very little fruitful hope whereas adult stem cell experimentation has shown substantial promise. So why this insistence on pursuing courses of research which are both immoral and inefficient? Can any close observer of the scene not see a spiritual dynamic involved? Make no mistake; the devil, whose agenda from the very beginning has been death, destruction, and deceit, is still very much at work.

And yet, what if embryonic stem cell research could make the case to cure diseases? Could such objections as those I've made in today's essay be thus overridden? Could there ever be a reason for discarding the biblical dictates regarding protecting innocent life at each and every stage of development? Let me pose this question in the way I did in a weekday "Vital Signs" program earlier this week...

Imagine the following scenario: Your child or your mother or your spouse is mortally ill. You are watching them suffer and you know death is not far away. Then suddenly a genie emerges from a magic lamp and informs you that if you wish, your loved one will be restored to complete health. There is only one catch – the genie explains to you that if you do exercise your wish for the renewed life and health of your loved one, then unfortunately another person... or maybe a few more must die. Now the genie quickly assures you that these other victims will be completely unknown to you. You need not worry about recriminations or approbation – no one will ever know. "So," he asks you, "is it so important if strangers' lives are taken as long as your loved one is kept alive and healthy?" Now, intellectually, you realize the genie is offering you a very wicked choice. No mortal should assume the powers of life or death. Yet you look once more at your dying child or mother or spouse; and you feel the hot tears fill your eyes. You turn to the genie and say...

This alarming fantasy illustrates the appeal inherent in the media's treatment of the embryonic stem cell controversy. After all, it emphasizes a strongly emotional appeal to the "good" that can come from the sacrifice. But it also exposes the immoral flaw. My friends, no matter how sweet the genie's salesmanship of abortion or euthanasia or the research-motivated murder of human embryos, it is a devil's deal that we must categorically reject.

(Written by Denny Hartford for "Vital Signs" radio)