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Why is the Orthodox Church Silent on Stem Cell Research?

Rev. Johannes Jacobse

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Embryonic stem cell research raises pressing questions for Orthodox Christians. It tests our morality. It challenges centuries of tradition. It makes us define what value we should grant human life.

What is a stem cell? A stem cell is a primordial (primitive and undeveloped) cell that can develop into any kind of the 210 different kinds of tissue that make up the human body. They are different than other kinds of cells because they have not yet developed into a specific tissue.

Stem cell therapy holds tremendous promise for healing diseases and other physical maladies that were considered incurable as recently as ten years ago. Scientist believe that if they can learn how to control stem cells, diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes can be cured, and injuries like spinal cord breaks, stroke, and other organ trauma can be healed.

The preliminary research with animals shows what a powerful healing agent a stem cell can be. In clinical trials with adult mice, the stem cells from a healthy mouse that were injected into a mouse with cardiac problems was able to regenerate blood vessels and cardiac muscle in the sick mouse. In another experiment, stem cell therapy restored full insulin production in diabetic mice.

At the University of Florida, rats that were genetically programmed to suffer strokes were injected with stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood. These cells integrated seamlessly into the areas of the brain damaged by the strokes where they matured into cells appropriate for that area of the brain.

If stem cells show such great promise for healing diseases, why is there conflict about using them? To answer this question it is necessary to know where stem cells come from.

There are two kinds of stem cells. The first kind is called a pluripotent cell. Pluripotent cells can develop into only a few types of organs. The second kind is called a totipotent cell. Totipotent cells can theoretically grow into any organ of the body. Stem cells are found in different places in the human body. Pluripotent stem cells are found in bone marrow, the brain, the liver, the umbilical cord blood of a new born baby, and even human fat. Totipotent stem cells are harder to locate. Currently most of them are extracted from human embryos.

This extraction of cells from human embryos has become the flash point of an ethical firestorm. Embryos are fertilized human eggs and extracting stem cells from them results in their death. Under the microscope the embryo is a clump of cells. Under the larger lens of moral clarity, the death of the embryo is the death of a human being.

In 1995, the federal government banned all funding of research that would harm, damage, or destroy human embryos. In 1999, the Clinton administration changed this policy to allow the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research as long as the cells were extracted by researchers not receiving federal funds. The Bush administration halted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research until it makes a final decision about whether to continue the Clinton policy or ban research altogether.

Embryos used in stem cell research are usually the frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization programs (IVP). When a childless couple opts for IVP therapy, numerous eggs taken from the mother are fertilized with father's sperm and then reintroduced in the mother's womb. When an egg finally implants, the remaining eggs are stored in a deep freeze.

No one really knows what to do with these extra embryos. Some of them have been adopted by childless couples who raise them as their own children beginning with the implantation of the embryo in the adoptive mother's womb. Others remain in storage. To many people, these stored embryos appear to serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

To many Americans, the fact that the stored embryos have no useful function is reason enough to sacrifice them for stem cell extraction. Americans have a strong pragmatic streak. To use these embryos in research seems much more reasonable than not to use them at all. This reasoning proves so compelling that even pro-life Americans jumped on the embryonic bandwagon unaware that they were betraying their own principles.

We see this happening in the congressional debates. Senators who oppose abortion because they regard abortion as the moral equivalent of murder see no problem in destroying that same embryo in a Petri dish. They have abandoned the foundational principle that life begins at conception. They don't seem to understand that there is no real difference between killing an embryo either inside or outside the womb. (To our discredit, no Orthodox Christian in national politics can be counted as a defender of the unborn.)

Orthodox Christianity stands against the destruction of the unborn. The Fathers of the Church are crystal clear about the inherent value of unborn life. St. Basil the Great writes, "He who destroys the fetus deliberately is guilty of murder." St. John Chrysostom writes, "To destroy the fetus is worse than murder." The Apostolic Constitutions say, "Thou shall not...kill that which is begotten...everything that is shaped and has received a soul from God...shall be avenged as being unjustly destroyed."

Is the embryo a fetus? Yes. Both terms describe the beginning of human life. All persons start out as an embryo. (Fetus in Latin means little one.) An embryo is the first stage in a continuum of human development that - if left unmolested - will grow to be an adult. The destruction of the embryo breaks this continuum and thus destroys a human life.

Do the moral teachings of the Church Fathers apply to frozen embryos as well? Yes. There is no qualitative difference between an embryo outside or inside a mother's womb. An embryo, whether frozen or growing, is still a human being.

If our pragmatism overrules clear moral thinking, we risk entering a Brave New World. Human beings will be reduced to commodities. Embryos will be created to be destroyed. An industry will emerge that will supply embryos to scientists not bothered by any ethical questions involving their work. Human beings will be harvested like tearing peas out of a pod.

Does this sound far fetched? It shouldn't. Earlier this summer scientists at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Virginia boasted in a press release that they paid women between $1,500 and $2,000 apiece for their eggs, and then used them - with the women's consent - to create embryos for the purpose of destroying them in embryonic stem cell research.

This stark utilitarianism is alarming. And it is very real.

It is also dishonest. Embryos are not the only source of the powerful stem cells that can be used for healing diseases. Embryonic stem cells might be easier to turn into human tissue, but at least one study has found that stem cells extracted from adult bone marrow may possess the equivalent potential for transformation.

Nor should the pressure to employ embryonic stem cells cause a rush to judgement. Stem cell research is in its infancy and much more needs to be discovered. Even in trials with human beings, remarkable success has been achieved without using embryonic stem cells. At the UCLA Medical Center, the transplantation of stem cells from umbilical cord blood saved the lives of three young boys born with defective immune systems. Instead of undergoing a bone marrow transplant, the boys underwent stem cell therapy. Two years later the doctors pronounced the boys cured.

Recently the United Methodist Church, which institutionally supports abortion, issued a proclamation urging President Bush to continue the suspension of embryonic stem cell research. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that embryonic stem cell research is a clear violation of Christian morality. The Southern Baptist Convention finds the research "abhorrent." The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod opposes the research.

Embryonic stem cell research clearly violates the moral teachings of our Orthodox Christian faith. It is time for Orthodox Christians and our Orthodox Christian Church to speak out.

(Author note: Since the publication of this article, the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America [OCA] issued a statement against embryonic stem cell research. For a complete text of their statement go to: www.OrthodoxyToday.org.)

This article was published in "The Hellenic Voice" on August 22, 2001. Fr. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Copyright 2002 Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Copyright 2001-2020 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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