Earlier this month, a group of scientists at Oregon Health Sciences University surprised many of their colleagues when they announced that they had obtained embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos.
The surprise was not so much at the fact that they had succeeded as it was at the fact that they had followed this avenue of research. As one scientist put it, their “achievement” has “no clinical relevance.”
But it has a great deal of moral relevance, which is how their actions should be understood.
The announcement appeared in the journal Cell. The scientists used a process known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer.” In this case, “the nucleus of a mature cell is transplanted into a human [egg] whose own nucleus has been removed. ... After the right stimulation, this new hybrid cell starts to divide and develop just as a sperm-fertilized egg would.”
Now all of this is much easier said than done. As one researcher told the Washington Post, “many labs attempted it, and no one had ever been able to achieve it.”
But that still leaves the question “to what end?” As the Post put it, “few experts think that production of stem cells through cloning is likely to be medically useful soon, or possibly ever.” In other words, don’t buy all the promises about miracle cures resulting from the use of embryonic stem cells. We’ve heard these before.
Furthermore, there’s been success in what the Post calls “a far less controversial way” of getting stem cells: adult stem cells. These can be reprogrammed to return to “what amounts to a second childhood from which they can grow into a new and different adulthood.”
A recent conference at the Vatican highlighted the many uses and medical cures that have already come as a result of working with adult stem cells. No such claims can be made for embryonic stem cells.
All of this reiterates the question, “Why were the scientists creating cloned embryos?”
This is especially important given the moral landmines surrounding the procedure. For starters, the announcement brings us one step closer to what is called “reproductive” cloning. Now let’s be clear – cloning of any sort, whether the embryo is implanted in a uterus or not is, strictly speaking “reproductive.” Still, this shows that there are people still interested in pursuing the research that will lead to “the production of one-parent duplicate humans.”
And there’s little to stop them: only 15 states ban human cloning, and there’s no federal prohibition on the practice.
While “one-parent duplicate humans” may still be the stuff of science-fiction, the destruction of human life is the stuff of science fact. The unvarnished truth is these researchers created human life for the express purpose of destroying it and harvesting what they regarded as the most useful bits: embryonic stem cells.
That their “achievement” has “no clinical relevance” and is unlikely to ever make a difference in alleviating human suffering only underscores the perversity of their actions.
In effect, their answer to the question “to what end?” is “because we can.” This is a clear example of the pitfalls when science operates autonomously, answerable only to its own ideas about what should or should not be done.
The historical irony is that science is the product of Christianity. What we know as the “scientific method” was the result of Christian ideas about God’s creation and human reason’s ability to understand it. Science was never intended to operate autonomously from theological or moral concerns.
And yet that’s what has happened. And that’s why we must be vigilant in defending the sanctity of human life.
Our friends at the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity do a terrific job of staying on top of new ethical challenges that Christians need to know about. And our friends at the Christian Medical and Dental Associations inform, connect and activate the Christian professionals working in fields of medicine and research. Come to BreakPoint.org and we’ll connect you with these terrific partner organizations.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: May 31, 2013