Christian voice needed in stem cell debate

By on October 1, 2007

‘Go-ahead for hybrid embryo research praised’

This headline in The Telegraph last month was one of many popping up around the world as researchers seek cures for diseases such as Parkinson’s, breast cancer or diabetes. Much current research centers on the potential of stem cells. These cells have the capacity to develop into the specialized cells of organs in our body and offer the promise of cures for disease and replacement of organs. However, our sources of stem cells are limited. They are found in human embryos, umbilical cord blood and in some areas of the adult body. They can also be created through a form of cloning (transferring the nucleus of one cell into a human egg which then reproduces), including human-animal “chimeras.”

For Christians this raises a new field of questions for ethical reflection. Is the use of human embryos acceptable to us? Only frozen excess embryos from in vitro fertilization attempts? Or embryos to be created solely for the purpose of research? Should we allow the creation of chimeras – creatures that are part human, part animal – for research? The Canadian government is weighing the regulations needed to meet the research demand and human outcry for cures for disease.

How do we evaluate these developments from a Christian perspective? What questions do we need to ask our governments and ourselves? An adaptation of guidelines prepared by the Biotechnology Reference Group of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) may be helpful to assist reflection on these kinds of issues (see full list: www.anglican.ca/faith/ethics). For example, the guidelines state: “We hold a higher ideal of human existence than simple usefulness (utility) or benefit in the present. (Genesis 1:2).” Also, “We uphold the inherent dignity of human life that must not be reduced to the status of a commodity (Psalm 139:13-14).” Applying these guidelines to the issue of stem cell research invites us to ask: Since an embryonic stem cell is a human life-form created by God – what kind of protection does it need from society? How do we protect embryos from becoming commodities traded, bought or sold?

Meanwhile, the guidelines further state: “We pay particular attention to the implications for the poor, the marginalized, the weakest as we seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8),” and “We advocate and nurture dialogue across the whole community to ensure all voices are heard and considered … We seek in-depth reflection that exposes underlying commitments and misleading or over-simplifying rhetoric of interested parties. Who will benefit most from the research? Will it be accessible to all people or only some? Who needs to participate in the discussions?”

Biotechnology will offer relief of suffering and invite us into decisions that play havoc with the order of creation. Are we willing to engage the challenge of ethical reflection in this critical moment? We may not find definitive answers but the questions need to be asked, discussed and considered before we make decisions with irrevocable implications. Our voices are needed in the public debate on these issues as governments establish regulations to govern research policies. What can we do?

  • Use the CCC guidelines for a parish discussion on this or other ethical issues;
  • Set up a study group;
  • Invite experts to help you understand the issues, then reflect together;
  • Consider using the study Fearfully and Wonderfully Made (National Council of Churches USA) www.ncccusa.org/pdfs/biotechcurriculum.pdf or see the ethics section of the Anglican Church of Canada Web site: www.anglican.ca/faith/ethics. Then share your views with your member of Parliament or sponsor a public forum.

Human life is a gift from the creator to be honoured and cherished. The responsibility of stewardship demands that we pay attention to the headlines and speak up.

Canon Linda Nicholls is the co-ordinator for dialogue in the faith, worship and ministry department of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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