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Stem cells and the debate on personhood

Every human being, and almost every living multi-celled organism, possesses stem cells. These remarkable cells have the unique ability to divide and develop into any number of more specialized cells, such as muscle, red blood or brain cells. Theoretically, they can divide without limitation so long as their person or animal is still alive. If our body is a temple, then these are the cells that built everything from the stone floors to the golden candle sconces.

Recently, President Obama has lifted former President George W. Bush’s ban on stem cell research just as the handful of stem cells that were permitted for scientific study had begun to die or lose their potency. This is alarming for a number of Christians and pro-life advocates, while for those with ruined legs or broken spinal cords, it is a joyous opportunity. Yet, in the words of Eastern’s well-reputed professor of medical ethics, Dr. Lewis Bird, let’s examine the issue not only from the pro-life or pro-choice perspectives, but from a perspective which is pro-reality.

There is a myth circulating that the stem cells of adults are as effective as that of an embryo. While there may be some similarities in their plasticity, or their ability to differentiate into other types of cells, those found in embryos are pluripotent. In other words, their ability to divide and develop into whole and complete new sets of body tissue is exponentially greater than adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the supermen of human tissue development.

Of course, the debate was never really over adult stem cells versus embryonic stem cells. It was always about the nature of personhood, when it begins and how we identify a human life. You see, when the embryoblast, or inner cell mass from which stem cells are derived is extracted, the embryo dies. Granted, the embryo is only a few cells old at this point, but this to many people is a human life.

Can I say they are wrong? Do I dare presume to posses such wisdom as to pinpoint the beginning of life? Can any of us say, “science has told us this, thereby we know life begins here” or even “God and all of his angels have spoken clearly and so we know this to be the truth?” None of us can be so bold to make this claim, as science is often very garbled in its speech and takes an expert to discern its meaning while God generally speaks softly if He chooses to speak at all.

“But He has spoken clearly!” someone is yelling quietly to themselves right now.

Psalm 139:13, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” This song of worship and praise of life is often quoted in reference to the beginning of life, taken as biblical evidence that personhood is when God begins the knitting, or at least that if we are not yet “persons” we are persons in the making and therefore still a sacred life.

I ask those who espouse this belief to consider two things.

First, that the majority of naturally-conceived embryos die within a few weeks of conception. This is not a theory, nor some mad scientist’s stretching of statistics but a fact, widely known and unequivocally true. Look up the well respected studies of Hertig (1967) and by French and Bierman (1962) or examine these findings together in Leridon’s compilation of their results (1977). If these embryos, again, naturally conceived, are to be considered human, then many who arrive in heaven will be shocked to find its ranks swelling with embryos and blastocysts.

And if they are indeed human lives, than certainly the greatest crisis to ever face the human race is that our undeveloped brothers and sisters never escape the womb. It seems that few have examined the theological ramifications of claiming life begins at conception when so many of the concieved perish soon thereafter. Does God tire of knitting and move on?

Because I do not believe in a God who grows bored so easily, I find it much more reasonable and faithful to assume that these cells are simply the yarn and by no means a finished product. Is a sweater a sweater when it is still just a heap of tangled string? Neither are the elements of personhood attached to the fickled cells of an embryo.

Second, there is a verse in the Bible that is neither a song nor a Hebrew poem, which specifically addresses the nature of personhood.

Exodus 21:22, “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury you are to take life for life …”

The phrase “born prematurely” is footnoted in the NIV and declared in The Message to be the antiquated phrasing of a miscarriage. Here, the Bible is specifically drawing a line between the unborn and the born, which certainly applies to the embryo’s personhood. The developing life dies and the cost is silver. When it is the life of the mother, it is death to the offender.

There is no doubt that embryonic stem cells have the capacity to open the doors to regenerative medicine, adding to it the way penicillin once changed the landscape of fighting infections, but when the debate of personhood is included, the waters muddy.

When did my body become a temple? When was it consecrated? Was it when God first dug into the earth to make way for His builders? Was it when I acquired scaffolding or was it when the altar of my mind first lit up? I cannot say. I do not believe anyone else can either.

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