Embryonic Stem Cells

Embryonic Stem Cells
Your incomplete view of morality evidently distorts your analysis of embryonic stem cell research. If we defined “immoral” as only that which causes human suffering, your case may have some merit. Certainly the needs of your “child with a spinal cord injury”42 are imperative. Yet, is the destruction of a potentially viable human embryo to produce embryonic stem cells truly the best course of action to help this child? Embryonic stem cell research will not likely offer this child any notable advantages over adult stem cell research. While embryonic stem cells do multiply faster than adult stem cells and have been shown to produce some neuronal regeneration, there still exists a significant likelihood that the child’s immune system will mount a graft-versus-host response to the foreign cells. Researchers have found that the presence of the protein nestin “indicates neural stem cells are much more active than previously believed. Our brain naturally increases the production of stem cells to aid an injured CNS.”43 These naturally produced stem cells only yield structural astrocytes that provide neuronal support rather than the neurons themselves. Studies conducted by Grill and colleagues on rats have shown that concomitant use of neurotrophin 3 (NT-3), stimulates neural stem cells to develop into functional neurons that result in significant improvement in motor skills.44 Brain derived neurotrophic factors such as NT-3 are proteins that do not have the potential for host rejection associated with the introduction of embryonic stems cells to the site of a spinal cord injury.

In some other medical situations embryonic stem cell lines may offer the best hope. Nevertheless, we really have no way of knowing, at this time, how much success researchers will encounter. A similar situation arose in the 1970s and 1980s with the field of gene therapy. Public pronouncements of the expected results of gene therapy research yielded a throng of suffering patients with high expectations. This resulted in a tremendous let-down as researchers encountered the many unexpected technical difficulties inherent in medical research. In 1995, with minimal progress after more than a decade of gene therapy research, the Director of the National Institutes of Health commissioned a review of the field which led to the following pronouncement:

    Expectations of current gene therapy protocols have been oversold. Overzealous representation of clinical gene therapy has obscured the exploratory nature of the initial studies, colored the manner in which findings are portrayed to the scientific press and public, and led to the widely held, but mistaken, perception that clinical gene therapy is already highly successful. Such misrepresentation threatens confidence in the field and will inevitably lead to disappointment in both medical and lay communities. Of even greater concern is the possibility that patients, their families, and health providers may make unwise decisions regarding treatment alternatives, holding out for cures that they mistakenly believe are ‘just around the corner.’45
Already, in the field of embryonic stem cell research, patients have developed high expectations for a very embryonic field of study.

Scientists at Wake Forest University and Harvard University have recently discovered a much less controversial way of harvesting embryonic stem cells. Researchers retrieved “stem cells from amniotic fluid donated by pregnant women and turned them into several different tissue cell types, including liver, brain, and bone....Harvard stem cell researcher George Daley said that the finding may mean expectant parents could someday freeze amnio stem cells for use in generating replacement tissue in a sick child, without fear of tissue rejection.”46

Embryonic Stem Cells – The “Soul” Question
You conclude that Christians oppose embryonic stem cell research because “life starts at the moment of conception” and “there are souls in each of these blastocysts.”47 What does the Christian church generally believe with respect to the concept of a “soul”? The majority of Christians typically do believe that “the soul comes into existence at the point of conception either by a direct act of God (creationism) or by transmission from parents (traducianism).”48 I adhere to the traducian view, which means that I believe the soul passes on from one generation to the next. However, the crux of the mind-body problem does not lie with the origin of the soul within individuals, but rather with the existence of the soul at all. Your apparent mockery of the concept of the soul leads me to believe that you are convinced that “a human person is purely a physical organism, whose emotional, moral, and religious experience will all ultimately be explained by the physical and biological sciences.”49 We call this monist view of the mind-body problem reductive physicalism. Conversely, I believe that we can achieve a greater understanding of the nature of the soul by dispensing with mockery altogether and accepting insights gained via both science and theology.

While the controversy regarding the nature of the soul remains vitally important to the question of the sanctity of life, the issue of inherent human dignity is equally indispensable. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the Christian concept of the imago dei. His steadfast belief in the inherent dignity of human persons came as a direct result of his Christian faith. He received the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote equality for persons of all races. Almost two hundred years earlier, the preamble of the U.S. Declaration of Independence referred to the self-evident truth that all men were created equal. Yet as a nation, Americans have only recently reached a consensus that supports that self-evident truth with respect to persons of different races. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that same self-evident truth with respect to persons at different stages of development.

Keep Reading!

Read Page 1 of Letter To A Christian Nation: A Response.

42 Sam Harris, p. 32.
43 http://www.namiscc.org/newsletters/December01/
SCI-stem-cell-research.htm. CNS stands for “central nervous system.”
44 Grill, R., Gage, F.H., Murai, K., Blesch, A. & Tuszynski, M.H. “Cellular delivery of neurotrophin-3 promotes corticospinal axonal growth and partial functional recovery after spinal cord injury” J. Neuroscience 17: 5560-5572 (1997).
45 Shirley M. Tilghman, “Address to the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey” (Princeton University: November 11, 2004). (http://www.princeton.edu/president/speeches/20041111/index.xml), (http://www.nih.gov/news/panelrep.html).
46 Lynn Vincent, “First Do No Harm” (World Magazine: January 20, 2007), p. 30.
47 Sam Harris, p. 31.
48 J.P. Moreland & Scott B. Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 205-206.
49 Phil Lueck, “What Does It Mean To Be Human?: In Search of a Theology of the Soul in an Age of Science: Issues, Assumptions, Options, and Challenges” (Minneapolis, MN: The MacLaurin Institute, 2006). (http://www.maclaurin.org/article_print.php?a_id=71).

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