What is Human: Shifting the Paradigm

[1] Stem cell technologies represent a promising new area of medical research. The prospective benefits are astounding, with experiments demonstrating possibilities that just five years ago were science fiction. The current quest is for pluripotent1 stem cells that can generate any type of tissue needed by medical therapy. One exciting mouse experiment injected bone marrow stem cells after artificially giving a mouse a heart attack. Some blood stem cells migrated to the damaged area of the heart and converted into heart muscle cells. This exemplifies the great promise of stem cells. This optimistic outlook must be balanced with the caveat that science and the media frequently overestimate technology’s benefits as well as the ease of its development. For example, the first implantable artificial heart was designed in the 1960’s. In 1982, a premature attempt at a permanent artificial heart transplant went into Barney Clark. Not until almost twenty years later, in the summer of 2001, was the Abiocor artificial heart declared a success when the first recipient survived past 30 days.2

[2] Do the promises of stem cell technologies justify the research costs and risks? Religion can guide people in this value assessment. Stem cell technologies will at high cost markedly benefit only a subset of the population. Important issues of social justice and access must be raised. These are actually the more worthy issues for public consideration. Such consideration would show that even pro-life and pro-choice groups of Christians have much in common when discussing social justice. Alas, instead the public debate has currently focused on the divisive issue of “when human life begins” so this essay addresses that debate. Stem cell technologies touch strongly on our very perception of what it is to be a human being created in God’s image. Indeed, I submit this is another paradigm shift science has created for Christianity.

[3] In my training I’ve dealt briefly with in vitro fertilization, genetic counseling, and fetal pathology. I’ve cared for premature infants weighing only one pound, attended stillbirths and babies born with lethal birth defects. I’ve had the great privilege of telling countless parents that they have a healthy newborn boy or girl. I’ve cared for children with severe disabilities. I describe all this to expose my biases. I’m a pediatrician, strongly committed to the lives of children. There is something sacred about human life that is beyond that explainable by science. It is evidenced in the faces of new parents, the joy of seeing a baby smile, and in the grief of a woman who has miscarried. But in my experience this awe does not extend to a few cells in a tissue culture flask.

[4] As a pediatrician, I’m committed daily to affirming that children are precious gifts too often undervalued and under appreciated in this world. But 70-80% of fertilized eggs miscarry, the majority of these within the first 2 weeks after fertilization, before the woman even knew she was pregnant. The scientist in me cannot ascribe the same value to these zygotes as I do to a newborn child. It is difficult to define a point at which this collection of living cells becomes a morally salient human life. But in a world of war, holocausts, abortion as birth control, and greatest of all, children born into poverty, it seems hypocritical, even idolatrous, to attach so great a value to a microscopic collection of cells.

[5] I use the term hypocrisy not in the modern sense where a person says one thing and does another, but as Jesus used it to describe Pharisees who held fast to the Law without understanding its true meaning. The most relevant examples were when Jesus healed on the Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:1-13 and Luke 13:10-17.) Accused of breaking a commandment, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of his accusers who knew the Law but not its purpose.

[6] A paradigm shift is in progress. Christianity has adapted to the scientific understanding that the earth revolves around the sun. Christianity has adapted to the theory of evolution. Even if God does not change, the paradigms mortals use to partially describe and comprehend God do change and evolve. In this age, with the human genome sequenced, animals cloned, and stem cell technology expanding, Christianity must reconcile its concept of an incarnate God with the realization that our humanity is not tied to our DNA or to the sacks of protoplasm that surround it.

[7] I understand the fear of those who believe that if Christians abandon the concept of a fertilized egg being sacred, it could alter our treatment of humanity in negative ways. Given humankind’s great tendency to rationalize and make ethics relative, this is not an unwarranted anxiety. All churches need their traditions and orthodoxy, but as a church of the Reformation, Lutherans must continuously challenge dogma. Rather than clinging to orthodoxy, anxiety can be overcome by more clearly affirming what Christians do value about human life. This is analogous to remembering why the Sabbath is holy. As a physician I’m called to care for people even on a Sabbath, avoiding hypocrisy by making my actions reflect God’s glory all seven days of the week. I cannot remain within safe confines of simplified phrases like “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy,” or “life begins at conception.” Christ always challenges me to keep as my highest commandment a loving response to the suffering of my neighbor.

[8] When confronted with moral dilemmas, I am called upon to respond lovingly, even if it means to “sin boldly” rather than recite regulations. I cannot say with certainty when a new human life begins, but scientifically fertilization is not a compelling milestone. Fertilization has been a recent orthodox position in Christian theology, but not the only position in Judeo-Christian history. Jesus, by healing on the Sabbath, reinterpreted a Commandment. Let us likewise affirm what is sacred about human beings without linking it solely to the dust from which we are constructed.

End Notes

1 http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/

2 http://www.heartpioneers.com/releases/083001.html