In recent years, the controversy over embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) has been revived. In 2013, scientists used cloning technology to create embryonic stem cells that were derived from human skin cells. This led to the creation of the first early-stage human clones using fetal stem cells. In 2014, scientists pioneered another breakthrough by cloning cells from two adults to create early-stage embryos, and then harvested tissue from those embryos.
And recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to give $20-million to the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine to help develop a stem cell therapy development facility in Toronto.
From scientists, celebrities, to high-ranking government officials, influential people across the world have hailed ESCR as the next miracle in regenerative medicine. But to some people, the ethics of ESCR is controversial; that’s because when cells are harvested from an early-stage human embryo, it completely destroys the embryo, which some people believe is the same as killing a human life.
The Worth of the Embryo
In Canada, embryonic life is not considered worthy of protection until it is well into the stages of fetal development. However, given the lack of laws regulating the experimentation and commercialization of embryonic life, there are still “profound ethical concerns regarding the use of human embryos for medical and scientific research,” says Mauren L. Condic, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah.
From a biological perspective, society is right to be nervous about how we treat embryonic life. Although some might see the human embryo as a mere “clump of cells,” this clump of cells actually exhibits characteristics of human life in the very early stages of development. In his book, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, Gilbert Meilaender explains:
[A]dvancing knowledge of embryological development indicates that the beginnings of the mammalian body plan are laid down from the time of fertilization. The newly fertilized ovum has a top-bottom axis that sets up an equivalent axis in the embryo. Thus, for example, where the head a feet will sprout is established in the first hours after egg and sperm unite. Even the earliest embryo, it seems, is more than just a featureless collection of cells; it is an integrated, self-developing organism, capable (if all goes well) of continued development that characterizes human life—and we are right to react with awe and wonder at the mystery of its individualized existence.
Putting this into perspective, the “head” and “feet” which show signs of development in the earliest stages of embryonic life are the head and feet of a potential human being. Our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, once resembled an early stage embryo. So when we talk about producing a “cloned, one-cell embryo, that would mature for several days in the laboratory and then be destroyed to obtain stem cells,” says professor Condic, we are talking about destroying the life of a potential human being.
However, God places tremendous worth on embryonic and fetal life. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” writes the Psalmist (Ps.139: 13). ESCR is unethical from a biological perspective because life begins from the time of fertilization. And so when embryonic life is destroyed, God’s work is rejected, life is stolen and God’s creation is subjected to death. This is sin at the highest order.
Christ, Bioethics and the Embryo
In the incarnation and crucifixion, the bond between the holy and righteous God of the cosmos and suffering and depraved humanity is strengthened and renewed. God calls Christians to suffer in solidarity with the weak and vulnerable, following Christ as our model. Surely, caring for those who suffer with debilitating diseases often means providing medical intervention when possible. But when the eradication of suffering through regenerative medicine becomes the ultimate end of society, this will almost always lead to weakening the bond between the healthy and suffering, rather than strengthening it. This can lead to the sick and suffering being treated in society as sub-human, undesirable and invalid, rather than being cared for as the least among us (Matt 25: 40).
God loves all life, even the microscopic details. In Luke 12:7, Jesus speaks to us about God’s intense care for every human being: “the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” Using one of the most intricate details of human life, Jesus shows that God knows us intimately and cares for us intently. In the article, “Paradox Confronted: Exploring the Nature of Christ’s Teaching in the Debate on Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Cynthia Fitch and Bryant Webber explain: “Christ’s analogy would probably be different in today’s high-tech culture. He might say that our very cells are numbered, or our genes known. If God loves a bird, how much more a baby, even at its earliest stages.” From God’s perspective, the human embryo is worth His Son dying for.
Comparing the kingdom to embryonic stem cells? In Luke 13: 18-19, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed “that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” Fitch and Webber observe the startling similarities between mustard seeds and embryonic stem cells in the context of Jesus’ parable:
Embryonic stem cells are eerily similar to mustard seeds. They are small. They appear trivial on their own. But they have such vast potential. They can develop intricate form and elaborate functions in the womb and in the world. As all great mustard trees were once seeds, so too all great men and women were once embryos.
All women and men—the human beings that God created and cares for—were once embryos. If Christ were speaking to us in our cultural context today, he might very well have told the parable of the embryo. We can imagine Him standing in a crowd among nurses and doctors, mothers and fathers, young women and men. He would be telling them how the kingdom of God is like an embryo that grew in a mother’s womb; it grew and became a fetus, and was soon given birth to become a vibrant young woman who would change the world for good.
The Ethical Problems of Biocapitalism
The real problem with ESCR and other forms of biotechnology, according to renowned Christian ethicist Larry Rasmussen, is the “vast amounts of corporate money courting cutting edge science in a society where science is increasingly for profit, if not for sale, and where the market swallows ethics as often as not.” The economics of biotechnology, if left to the indifference of free market forces, would undoubtedly lead ESCR and regenerative medicine down the path of economic injustice. The way the market economy serves the interests of those who can afford treatments would undoubtedly put the benefit of the medicine in the hands of the rich, further weakening the bond between the healthy and poor. Not only that, but ESCR would be funded on the basis of whether the medicine provided effective treatment, and if so, the development of those treatments would most likely be pursued on the basis of profit instead of social compassion.
Speaking to the vicious forces of biocapitalism, Rasmussen tells us that “market adoration” is far more efficacious in bolstering power than “dictatorial force” itself. This is why the field of ESCR is in need of an ethical hermeneutic that evaluates actions not only in terms of what can be achieved, but also in terms of whether or not God’s justice and love is being upheld.
When we evaluate biocapitalism through the lens of Christological ethics, we come to the conclusion that human embryos are not commodities or raw materials to be bought and sold in the free market. Rather, “the embryo is a living thing,” writes Clement of Alexandria. Thus, it is unethical to commodify the human embryo for the sake of economic and scientific progress, because “living things” cannot be owned by anyone except God.
Photo from flickr by Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)