by Charles Whitaker
Last month, we defined the nature of embryonic stem-cell research. If scientists can understand and replicate the signals used to control embryonic cellular differentiation, they will be able to build mature cells for implantation into sick or injured individuals. However, far beyond that, they will be well on the path to understanding the blueprint God follows when He fashions the human person in the womb. This knowledge will permit them to "construct" a person, practically from the ground up—from a cloned embryo to a baby.
The present article will review the scientific challenges and moral issues that surround embryonic stem-cell research. It will close with a brief discussion of an alternative to this type of research.
Essentially, four scientific (or technological) questions dominate embryonic stem-cell research:
1. Is an adult cell, artificially produced from a disassociated stem cell, in all ways like its counterparts produced by natural embryonic development? An artificially produced adult cell, say a brain cell, may appear normal, but is it normal in all ways? One specialist points out that scientists cannot prove that such a "cultured" cell is "fully functional and capable of integrating into the architecture of the brain without exhibiting any undesirable properties (such as malignant growth)."1
2. Will the host reject the implanted cells? This is a real immunological concern. In the case of organ transplants, even where there is a good "match," the foreign organic material becomes targeted by the immune system for rejection. There is every reason to believe that the immune system would reject implanted stem-cell progeny as well. "Stem cell transplants, like organ transplants, would not buy you a 'cure'; they would merely buy you time. In most cases, this time can only be purchased at the dire price of permanently suppressing the immune system."2
3. Can we simulate all the signals? Embryonic stem cells split into more specialized, less totipotent, cells in response to at least three types of signals: chemical, electrical, and mechanical. Scientists claim they can simulate—replicate—the chemical (molecular) signals in culture. They are always brewing chemical soups in their Petri dishes. However, do these concoctions really imitate molecular configurations in a naturally developing embryo?
Further, can scientists simulate the electrical and mechanical signals present in a woman's womb?
Many of the factors required for the correct differentiation of embryonic cells are not chemicals that can be readily "thrown into the bubbling cauldron of our Petri dishes." Instead, they are structural or mechanical elements uniquely associated with the complex environment of the embryo. . . . Failing to replicate the full range of normal developmental signals is likely to have disastrous consequences. Providing some but not all of the factors required for embryonic stem-cell differentiation could readily generate cells that appear to be normal . . . but are in fact quite abnormal.3
Remember, stem cells are prolific, which is all to the good for embryonic growth. Yet, without any organizing factor, stem cells produce teratomas—tumors. If only a few imperfect adult cells "bred" in a Petri dish from dissociated stem cells were implanted into a patient, the result might be a fast-growing tumor that would lead to death.
Thus, it is extremely difficult to simulate electrical and mechanical forces in a laboratory culture. A Petri dish makes a poor substitute for a womb.
4. What do animal studies indicate? Generally, new medical technologies (whether drugs or procedures) are first tested and proven with animal subjects. In the case of embryonic stem-cell research, that proof is not forthcoming, as one expert emphatically states: "To date there is no evidence that cells generated from embryonic stem cells can be safely transplanted back into adult animals to restore the function of damaged or diseased adult tissues."4 To begin testing with human subjects would ignore normal (and legal) requirements for prior animal testing. Bypassing animal testing could be disastrous.
Scientists, keen to sell the public (and grant-giving governments!) on the curative promise of embryonic stem-cell research, have not been fully honest about these crucial scientific questions. The majority of California voters, responding to emotional pleas of celebrities in the November 2004 election, did not recognize the significance of these questions. Ignorant of the various inherent and perhaps insurmountable difficulties of making a disassociated stem cell do what bio-technologists want it to do, that majority handed the biotech firms a $3 billion bond issue. We can only hope and pray that California's credit rating is so poor that no one will buy the bonds!
The Moral Issue
To understand the overriding moral issue confronting bio-technologists, leaders, and the public at large, we need to backtrack just a bit.
Scientists, remember, have learned how to "extract" some stem cells from an embryo created either through IVF or cloning. In culture, these dissociated stem cells reproduce indefinitely and quickly. Scientists became fascinated with these cells when they discovered they could brew up chemicals in a Petri dish that would simulate the signals they receive in the womb. These signals tell the stem cells when to split and what type of more specialized cells they are to produce. For example, these signals tell a stem cell to produce a proto-neural cell, rather than, say, a proto-heart cell.
What happens to the embryo that "donates" these disassociated stem cells? It dies. Always! In this fact lies the moral issue of embryonic stem-cell research. The embryo, an organism that, following a God-given blueprint, will normally and eventually develop into a breathing person in God's image, is destroyed through stem-cell harvesting. It makes no material difference at all whether that destroyed embryo was intentionally created through IVF or through cloning: In either case, the embryo was a maturing human being and had the potential to become a glorified God being. Implicitly and inextricably coupled with embryonic stem-cell research is murder. Bio-technicians intentionally create embryos and then intentionally destroy them.
Paul Ramsey is right: "The embryo's subsequent development may be described as a process of becoming what he already is from the moment of conception."5 Stem-cell harvesting permanently interrupts the embryo's development. To terminate that development for the purposes of research is to kill without God's permission. For this reason, embryonic stem-cell research is part of the "culture of death" exemplified by such postmodern phenomena as abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.
Thus, there are two reasons why the biotech industry's marketing ploy in the recent California elections was irresponsible to the point of despicability:
1. First, it peddled empty hope—hope virtually bereft of scientific foundation. It paraded celebrity after celebrity before the public, each with the same emotional plea: "Don't deny the sick the hope of cure. Vote to fund embryonic stem-cell research." The campaign was a cruel hoax, considering that "More than twenty years of unrestricted research on animal embryonic stem cells . . . has failed to yield a single cure for any human illness."6 As we saw above, the lack of successful stem-cell experiments with animals, our experience with immunological rejection of implanted tissues, and our inability to replicate fully the environment of the womb all raise significant scientific questions. Yet, the celebrities' plaintive cry for mercy—pathetically bellowing empty hope—never brought these issues before the public. The majority of the public voted with their hearts, not their minds.
2. Second, the industry did not so much as broach the moral issue—the taking of absolutely defenseless human life—inextricably connected with harvesting stem cells from embryos. It apparently assumes that such moral concerns are not worth mentioning in a secular society. Bio-tech firms undoubtedly consider such issues irrelevant.
Through purposefully creating and then destroying embryos to secure their stem cells, scientists seek to heal the paying sick at the expense of the helpless young—and make a pretty penny at the same time! The potential for profit from successful implementation of stem-cell implants is absolutely astonishing. Those able to pay will pay, and pay well. The biotech industry has a lot to gain, and shamelessly stoops to lying and murder to gain it.
As if lying and murder were not bad enough, the industry suppresses knowledge,7 adding to its culpability. Conveniently, scientists have neglected to inform the public about a possible alternative to using embryonic stem cells for treating disease. That alternative lies in the existence of adult stem cells in adolescents and adults. Adult stem cells have not been studied as deeply as their embryonic cousins because of scientists' preoccupation—indeed, fixation—with discovering the blueprint of embryonic development.
If the industry had not been so effective in suppressing knowledge, the public would have learned that the use of adult stem cells avoids most of the scientific and moral issues surrounding embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are easily obtained by tissue biopsy from patients, including the sick patient himself. They are amenable to growth in culture, and can be "induced to differentiate into a wide range of mature cell types."8 Because they come from the patient's own body, the mature cells they produce probably will not experience immunological rejection. They are not prone to form tumors. Most importantly, their use does not raise moral issues about the destruction of embryos. Harvesting adult stem cells through biopsy involves no killing.
Admittedly, there are technological questions about the therapeutic effectiveness of adult stem cells. For one thing, they are not as prolific as their embryonic counterparts. Scientists question if they could produce enough of them to effect a cure. Just as basic is the concern that adult stem cells may not be as multipotent as embryonic stem cells. They may not produce a broad enough spectrum of cell types to make their use practicable.
What is important about these two questions is just this: They could be answered, and possibly resolved successfully, through further research. Scientists may be able to learn how to increase the productiveness of adult stem cells. They may discover that there are different "populations" of adult stem cells in the human body, each population capable of producing a different type of specialized cell (brain, muscle, etc.).
The Secret Things
A great deal of research needs to be done before stem cells of any age (embryonic or adult) can become part of the medical practitioner's regular tool kit. It would be wiser to put limited research dollars into adult stem-cell research for at least two reasons. First, the challenges to effective, practical implementation of embryonic stem cells may be "insurmountable"9 for the scientific reasons reviewed above. Second, unavoidably connected to embryonic stem-cell research is the moral issue of embryonic destruction. However, the potentially more fruitful research involving adult stem cells will never take place so long as the devastating culture of death prevails in the biotech industry, a greed-driven culture that impels scientists and industry leaders alike to lie, murder, and suppress knowledge. All this in search of God's blueprint.
By its definition, research seeks to uncover things hidden—maybe even secret things. God provides man with a "reality check" when He notifies him that there exist secret things that "belong to the Lord our God" (Deuteronomy 29:29). Some knowledge is simply not mankind's business. Is the blueprint—the organizing principle—God uses to form us in our mothers' wombs among those secret things? As we have seen, cellular differentiation is not random but blueprint-directed by the sovereign God. That this blueprint can be studied only by the wanton and deliberate destruction of defenseless life should tell everyone something: God considers knowledge of that blueprint to be solely in His purview.
Not all knowledge is secret, though, as Moses, continuing in verse 29, makes clear by using the word but: ". . . but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." God, Moses asserts, reveals certain knowledge for our good. It requires no research to discover this "declassified" information, as Moses points out in verses 11-13 of the next chapter. The law, he writes there, "is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven; . . . Nor is it beyond the sea. . . ." In verse 15, Moses tells us exactly what that revealed knowledge is: "See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil." The knowledge of life and of good, revealed by God in His Word, is visible for all to see. God thunders, in verse 19, what we should do with that knowledge: "Choose life, that both you and your descendants may live."
Postmodern man has not chosen life. Instead, he has chosen, and increasingly practices, a culture of death in the pursuit of "secret things." As a result, he will die, as will his descendants—some of whom already have perished through abortion. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses enumerates the curses that will follow any peoples' rejection of God's revealed law. There are many. America waits to bear the very bitter fruit of her culture of death.
Insert: A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose?
During the last thirty years or so, biotechnologists have sought to gain public acceptance of their wickedness by playing word games. William L. Saunders, Jr. ("Embryology: Inconvenient Facts," First Things, December 2004, p. 13) mentions the pre-game activities, which started as early as 1970. At that time, an editorial appearing in the journal of the California Medical Association spoke of the need for doctors to engage in "semantic gymnastics" with the public. It was necessary, the editorialist argued, to avoid "the scientific fact, which, everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death." The purpose: the creation of "a new ethic for medicine and society."
A later expression of this word game was the creation in 1986 of the concept of "pre-embryo." Scientists coined this term to refer to an embryo before implantation in the womb. This is a senseless and deceptive term; an embryo is an embryo from the time the zygote experiences its first cellular split. It is an embryo regardless of its state of womb-attachment. To use the term "pre-embryo" is to imply that a zygote/embryo is not a human organism until attachment. In this regard, Saunders quotes Lee Silver, a firm believer in stem-cell research. The following is from Silver's 1997 book, Remaking Eden.
I'll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific. The new term is used to provide the illusion that there is something profoundly different between a six-day-old embryo and a sixteen-day-old embryo. The term is useful in the political arena—where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo experimentation. . . ."
By this prominent researcher's own admission, "pre-embryo" is a term invented to create an illusion. It hides the reality that life starts at fertilization. It dehumanizes the pre-implanted embryo, setting it up for destruction for the purpose of scientific experimentation. Through its use, the bio-technician seeks to buy time, to construct a window for his killing.
Another manifestation of the word game revolves around researchers' intentions. The logic goes this way: If the researcher never intended to implant the cloned (or in vitro fertilized) zygote into a womb, then it is not a zygote and will never become an embryo. It is not human. As such, it is fair game for destructive experimentation. However, as we have seen, every zygote, whether sexually or asexually created, whether in a Petri dish or a womb, has the potential to become a human being. In this regard, Saunders quotes a standard textbook by Keith Moore and T. Persaud: "Human development begins at fertilization. . . . This highly specialized, totipotent cell [the zygote] marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." The researchers' intentional refusal to allow that totipotent cell to develop to its potential does not change its nature from human to nonhuman. This is pure inanity.
A variant of this perverse thinking is the attempt to distinguish between "reproductive cloning" and "therapeutic cloning." Reproductive cloning occurs when the cloned object (an embryo) is implanted into a womb. Therapeutic cloning is the creation of a clonal zygote with no intention to implant it into a womb—ever. Such a zygote is, again quoting Saunders, "simply kept in the lab, an innocuous cluster of cells to be put to good scientific use." This, too, is a senseless distinction. Regardless of the researcher's planned purpose, a zygote is a zygote—always a potential son or daughter of God.
Incidentally, the term "therapeutic cloning" is a contradiction in terms. Therapeutic exercise, as an example, benefits the recipient, the subject, but therapeutic cloning produces an embryo that is later killed to harvest stem cells. It hardly benefits the subject!
What about another term appearing in the media: "somatic cell nuclear transfer"? Scientists have simply re-named cloning, using a scientific-sounding euphemism that obfuscates meaning. Saunders writes: "Cloning is a laboratory procedure in which the nucleus for a somatic (body) cell is transferred or transplanted into an egg cell from which the original nucleus has been removed." He rightly calls the use of multiple "long words instead of one short" word "linguistic mischief, not science."
Another such term popping up repeatedly is "nuclear transplantation to produce stem cells," a particularly insidious phrase. It is true that the nuclear transplantation (the cloning) is done with the aim of harvesting stem cells. However, scientists conveniently leave a middle step unmentioned in this euphemism: the creation of a human embryo. We know that the transplantation itself does not produce stem cells. It produces a zygote that experiences growth (cellular differentiation) in culture. That is, the transplantation produces a living, viable embryo, one generating stem cells on its way, in due time, to producing a mature human being. Wicked men, interrupting the process, extract the stem cells, killing the human being.
Call it what you will, a rose by any other name is still a rose. Murder by any other name remains murder.
1 Condic, Maureen L., "The Basic Facts about Stem Cells,"First Things, January 2002, p. 30.
5 Quoted by Saunders, Jr., William L, "Embryology: Inconvenient Facts."First Things, December 2004, p. 13. Emphasis added.
6 Condic, "Stem Cells and False Hopes,"First Things, August/September 2002, p. 20.
7 See Romans 1:18.
8 Condic, "The Basic Facts about Stem Cells," ibid.