Stem cell research: How should we then live?

Lessons from barrenness about a controversial issue, part V/V
Published in Christian Renewal magazine, 28 February 2007

This series of articles has thus far argued that human life begins at conception and is therefore to be valued and protected from that time; it has outlined the implications of that idea for embryonic stem cell research and considered several alternative options for stem cell research that do not threaten human life; and it has corrected some of the disinformation surrounding the politics of stem cell research. In this final article, let us now face the crucial question: what am I to do in light of these things?

At first glance, it would seem that there is little the average person can do to counter the huge scientific and political machine that is embryonic stem cell research. Most of us lack the funds, political influence, or scientific expertise necessary to directly cause a major shift in our culture’s attitude toward this issue. Nevertheless, there are a number of things we can do—indeed, should do—to protect human life even at its earliest stages.

At a personal level

Given the prevalence of infertility, in-vitro fertilization, and serious illness, we all likely know someone who has an interest in the issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research. Because of the current media and political climate, however, few people know that the embryonic stem cell research process necessarily ends with the destruction of human life, and fewer still know about the several equally promising, non-embryonic alternatives.

Many people suffering from serious illness place their hope for successful treatment in stem cell research. Perhaps they have believed the political rhetoric surrounding the issue or are simply unaware of the alternative research methods; consequently, they believe that using embryos for research is essential to finding a successful treatment for their illness. If they were informed about the seldom publicized but equally promising alternatives, one would expect that they would support a practice that both offers hope and protects human life. Perhaps not, but how can they know unless someone is able and willing to tell them?

We all likely know someone who has struggled with infertility or has considered or undergone in-vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF has become commonplace in our society and in Christian circles as well, and I have been surprised at the high infertility rate I have observed within the church. Many who consider doing IVF are unaware of the several possible ethical problems associated with the procedure or are perhaps desperate enough to have a child that they overlook them. Few know that IVF can be done in a way that protects human life, though it is difficult to find a doctor willing to alter his method to comply with the couple’s wishes. Those who have already undergone IVF often struggle with what to do with frozen leftover embryos.

Despite its increasing frequency, embryo adoption is still virtually unknown as an option for infertile or post-IVF couples. I will never forget how strange it sounded when I first heard about it, and I suspect that will be the usual reaction until it becomes more widespread. Embryo adoption raises its own set of questions, which we cannot be properly addressed in this series, but if human life begins at conception, then these frozen embryos—nearly a half million in the United States alone—are human beings in jeopardy of being discarded or used as microscopic guinea pigs.

These issues are highly emotional and difficult for anyone regardless of their background and beliefs. As we struggled through these issues, my wife and I found that even some of our most trustworthy and usually helpful friends had little advice to offer. It is important for all Christians to have thought through controversial issues like stem cell research so that they are able to help the many they will encounter who have not.

At the political level

While few of us are in a position to single-handedly alter the political establishment, most of us by God’s grace have been given a measure of political influence. As Christians we are called to be as informed as we can about these kinds of issues, to inform others about them, to dispell the disinformation that so frequently surrounds them, and to use our influence to promote righteousness.

During our lifetime, we will be called upon to vote on candidates and referendums that will have a direct influence on stem cell research. With politicians and the media largely fixated on political rhetoric, it is left to the individual voters to make others in their sphere of influence aware of the facts. They must labor to keep the humanness of embryos at the front of the discussion surrounding stem cell research: if human life begins at conception, then these are literally life-and-death issues, and we should act and especially vote accordingly.

At the spiritual level

Such weighty matters as these can quickly leave one feeling overwhelmed, but we must never forget that this is a spiritual issue even more than a scientific or political one. The lives of embryos, the health of the diseased, the decisions of politicians, and the mindset of our culture ultimately rest in God’s hands alone, and he will assuredly work out his will in all things. Psalm 115:3 asserts, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever he pleases.” In Jeremiah 32:27, God himself asks, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” Luke 1:37 answers, “Nothing is impossible with God!” We even have a most amazing proof that God is able to do anything he desires: he has raised Jesus from the dead as a display of his might (Ephesians 1:19-20).

He is ultimately the only one who can intervene on behalf of those who are in pain or have been abandoned, and according to his Word, he is a God who regularly does so. “For my mother and my father have forsaken me,” says Psalm 27:10, “but the LORD will take me in.” According to Matthew 5:45, God is so generous with mercy that he extends it to even the unjust. 2 Corinthians uses the various forms of the word “comfort” more than any other book in the Bible, emphasizing over and over that he is the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). Perhaps Psalm 113 says it best:

Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
Praise the name of the LORD,
Blessed be the name of the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
The name of the LORD is to be praised.
The LORD is high above all nations;
His glory is above the heavens.
[Why is the Lord’s name so to be praised, you ask? Read on!]

Who is like the LORD our God,
Who is enthroned on high,
Who humbles Himself to behold
The things that are in heaven and in the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the ash heap,
To make them sit with princes,
With the princes of His people.
He makes the barren woman abide in the house
As a joyful mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (NASB)

This psalm spoke powerfully to my wife and me while we wrestled with all the things described in this series. To think that the God who is enthroned on high would humble himself to behold the things of heaven and earth; to think that he would take note of the poor, the needy, and the barren, and that he would make them into princes and joyful mothers; and to think that this psalm’s promises are more spiritual than physical! He certainly is to be praised forever and in all nations. My family has witnessed his abundant power and kindness, and in more ways than just infertility and embryo adoption.
It is this God who is ultimately in control of the matter of stem cell research. The scientists, politicians, diseased, and tiniest of embryos are all in his hand. And as his people, let us be diligent in prayer and works, following his merciful example.

Read more: the firstsecondthird, and fourth articles in this series.

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