Theological Support of Stem Cell Research

Pope John Paul II has stated that support of embryonic stem cell research evidences moral corruption. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have cast the debate surrounding this research as nothing but the next chapter in the abortion controversy. The ethical issues involved with this research, however, are far too complex to be reduced to such a simple assessment. Portraying the stem cell debate as the abortion controversy is at best intellectually misleading, at worst ethically negligent.

By | September 3, 2001

Pope John Paul II has stated that support of embryonic stem cell research evidences moral corruption. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research have cast the debate surrounding this research as nothing but the next chapter in the abortion controversy. The ethical issues involved with this research, however, are far too complex to be reduced to such a simple assessment. Portraying the stem cell debate as the abortion controversy is at best intellectually misleading, at worst ethically negligent.

The stem cell debate has been framed by the wrong basic question: its moral heart lies not with abortion, but in its potential good. Stem cell research is morally significant first because it promises healing. Implanted stem cells, it appears, teach the body to heal itself, rejuvenating failing tissues, from organs to nerves. These therapies promise to ease the suffering of millions inflicted with such debilitating diseases as Parkinson's, heart and liver failure, juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's, and cancer.

It is our considered judgment that not only is this research morally permissible, there is an ethical and theological mandate to actively support it. To not support stem cell research, we have concluded, is unethical.

The principal grounding of our support is beneficence, a bioethical variant of the Christian understanding of agape love. Theological and ethical reflection are at their best when framed by beneficence--a selfless love of one's neighbor that inspires struggle against suffering and death. Beneficence asks: Does stem cell research further or hinder the betterment and well being of humanity? The answer is yes; this form of scientific research promises enormous leaps in the quality of health care.

For those who follow Jesus of Nazareth, decisive here is the Nazarene's ministry of healing. The Christian doctrine of salvation includes healing of body and soul. We human beings emulate God when we engage in our own ministry of healing. Medical research, in its own way, contributes to God's healing work on Earth.

The destruction of embryos for this research is not irrelevant to our ethical considerations. We must ask a question: when does life begin? Or better, when does morally relevant personhood begin? In Donum Vitae in 1987 the Vatican declared that at conception three components make a full human being: sperm, egg, and a divinely implanted soul. However, with advances in embryology such as nuclear transfer, scientific understanding of what it takes to make a human individual is changing. Before ethical conclusions on the status of the embryo are drawn, theologians and ethicists must study this rapidly advancing science.

The embryo is a potential human being, to be sure; respect for the early embryo shows our respect for God's intended future destiny. As such we do not support research that would lead to the wholesale fabrication of embryos for research purposes. Rather, we support research that uses stem cell lines derived from embryos taken from fertilization labs. In the deep freezes of these clinics are thousands of embryos slated for destruction. Society has decided to engage in reproductive technology. Excess embryos exist in large numbers. These surplus embryos will never find connection to a mother's womb, never become a human being.

Is it ethically licit to take surplus embryos and press them into the service of life-saving medical research? Armed with the principle of beneficence we want to answer, yes. So ethically central is the principle of beneficence that those who ignore its invocation in the stem cell debate owe it to the public to justify opposition to the advance of medical research. We might recall Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a robbed and beaten man is left on the side of the road to die. Priests pass by on the other side of the road, avoiding offering aid. A Samaritan happens along the road, carries the suffering one to the next town and pays for his health care. Confronted by suffering, the Samaritan chooses agape in the form of beneficence. Reducing the stem cell debate to the abortion controversy, we allow the unnamed suffering man--suffering from heart disease, Alzheimer's, or cancer--to die without aid.

Ted Peters, is professor of theology and director of the science and religion course program at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley Calif. Gaymon Bennett is a theologian at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.

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