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James Peterson

Thank you to Brent Waters, Jennifer Derryberry, Ron Cole Turner, Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and all the others involved in calling together this colloquy. And to my colleagues and the audience who have already been so rich with insights this afternoon. I appreciate the chance to work with you. It seems to me that most of the moral life is more a question of will than of discernment. The right thing to do is often clear, we just do not want to see it or hesitate to do it. The question before us however may be about as much of a true dilemma as life gives us. It seems to be a clear conflict of life with life. I only wade into it because it needs to be done. In my brief paper tonight I will think openly with you, call it as I see it, as clearly as I can. If by your questions and comments you help me to see where I should change my perception, I will be grateful. It is a good thing to be delivered from a false opinion. So, in advance, thanks for the help. What would our Lord have us to do concerning stem cells? Notice, in keeping with my assignment, I am addressing what Christians should do, yet in pursuing that question many of the arguments that I will be raising would be hearable outside a Christian worldview. I am not aware of any debate about whether it is moral to use stem cells to help people. The problem is where the stem cells come from. If stem cells could be obtained from inessential cells of an adult, we could have a perfect tissue match for the person being treated with no risk of rejection and no moral question. Such stem cells would possibly save countless lives from paralysis, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Tay Sachs, and other debilitating, even deadly, diseases. To find a way to do so would be a kind, fruitful, and indeed thrilling expression of love for those neighbors. That is well worth pursuing. It may some day be possible, but it is not now and it will not be easy to reach if we do. While most nucleated cells have all the instructions for a complete human body, an adult cell has formed into the most effective shape for doing a specialized task. A tiny fraction of its DNA is guiding the cell s work. The information is there to make anything in the body, but the DNA and the rest of the cell have been structurally configured for a particular task. To reform the DNA into the unshaped potential of an original stem cell is a physically wrenching task. Some labs have held out hope that someday we will be able to do it without damaging the information, but in the meantime, and it may be a very long time, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling and many are dying who might well be helped by stem cells. Stem cells are available now from the death of human embryos. There is the question before us. Should we obtain potentially life giving stem cells from the death of embryos?

There is no problem with sacrificing human tissue to save human beings, but is the embryo more than just tissue? If the embryo is a fellow human being, we should not kill one person to save another. Human beings are simply not available to cut into parts, no matter how useful. But is the embryo a fellow human being, a person, a soul, one of us? News accounts of the stem cell debate have often expressed surprise that many individuals who have worked actively against abortion have been willing to accept the taking apart of human embryos to obtain stem cells. That some pro life activists would reject one and accept the other is rooted in their understanding of what the embryo is.

Is the embryo a fellow human being? This is not a question that we can leave aside. I would like to, but it keeps coming back. For research, pre implantation genetic diagnosis selection, and a myriad of other present and coming techniques the status of the embryo will be central to whether the intervention should be welcomed or not. For example if people want to bring together many embryos so that they can then select the best one or two to implant and discard the rest, is that seeking the best genetic start for their children, mass murder, or something else? The question will not be resolved simply by executive orders or legislation. In my book Genetic Turning Points: The Ethics of Human Genetic Intervention, the fifth chapter has room to carefully walk through and bibliographically track the arguments for when we should recognize that a person is present. Now there will just be time briefly to introduce and begin to test some of the most widely given reasons for protecting human embryos as people.

It is fitting while meeting at a Methodist Seminary to appeal to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Christians have long sought to know Gods will by listening to scripture, tradition, the direct experience of God, and thoughtful reason. Different streams within the varied Christian tradition have emphasized one of these sources over another. The Reformation was rooted in sola scriptura, but this was never scripture alone. It was rather scripture first, interpreted in the light of tradition, reason, and experience. So with that in mind, let us begin by searching the scriptures.

For Islam, the Koran simply states that a person is present beginning at forty days after fertilization. The Christian tradition has no such clear statement. Texts such as Psalm 139:13 are often quoted. It reads, You knit me together in my mothers womb. The metaphor of knitting conveys God's intimate involvement in the psalmist's life from the beginning. However, it does not say when that form in the womb became a human being. God is intimately involved in the formation of the body that will be the psalmist. That does not tell us when the developing body is the psalmist. Trying indirectly to extrapolate the timing of human presence from this text is reading in affirmations that are not present.

Jeremiah 1:5 is often quoted, Before you were in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. However, the text is not about human embryology or even about humanity at all. It is about the surety of what God plans. God has called Jeremiah to a particular vocation and has been planning this task even before Jeremiah was in the womb to call to it. There is nothing in the text that designates when Jeremiah became a living human being. If the point of the text was instruction about Jeremiahs existence, it would indicate that he was alive in some realm before being in the womb. Again the quote reads Before you were in the womb, I knew you. Pre existence is not the point anymore than for Ephesians 1:4 which states that God chose us in Him before the creation of the world. The texts are marveling at God s knowledge and choice, not human existence before time. God knows what is in even the secret place of the womb (Job 31:15). Embryos are in Gods presence as is all the rest of life. We are responsible for how we treat them, but when precisely they become persons is not taught in these A relevant theme that we do have from Christian scriptures is that followers of Jesus Christ should love their neighbors. Jesus describes this in Luke 10 as a concern and action for others that reaches out to whomever one can help. Responsibility, nurture, service, are at the fore. The question before us remains however that granted we should love our neighbor and that we know our neighbors who are dying from disease, when is there a neighbor in the womb to love? Scripture directs us to extend our love to all our neighbors, but does not specifically tell us when there is a neighbor there. We should
exercise hospitality, but does that include for every sperm or egg? To every conceptus? The call to love our neighbor does not define the threshold of when there is a neighbor present to love. We could turn to tradition, the wisdom of our brothers and sisters in the faith who have lived before us. For much of church history the dominant view has been that there is not an ensouled body until there is a body to ensoul. That a body was fully present to be a person was recognized at formation, forty days into the pregnancy when the basic organs are present and mainly growth in size remains. John Connery traces this historic consensus in Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective, published by Loyola University Press. Following that logic now with our current knowledge would lead us to about twenty eight days post fertilization as the time to recognize that a neighbor is present.

We could turn to our experience of Gods leading. George Annas appeals to a common moral intuition with the following story. If a fire broke out in a fertility lab and there was only time to save a two month old baby there in a basinet or a rack with seven embryos, most people would save the baby without hesitation. Yet carrying out the test tube rack instead, could have saved seven people, if indeed each embryo was a person. Thankfully that is not the usual choice that we face. But if Annas is correct about what we would do, what is guiding our choice? Could it be that we make a clear distinction between an embryo as potentially a person and a later point in development as a person actually present?

Can reason helps us sort this out? It is often claimed that human development is such a continuum that no point along it can be marked as to when a human being has begun. Hence a human being must be present from fertilization. The irony of this argument is that it is still citing a point at which a person first becomes present. All of the genes that an individual has were already present in the egg and sperm that would meet. It is bringing them together in one place that is seen as the crucial threshold. So by this view there is a threshold condition for the presence of a person. That then raises the question of why mark the gathering of the genes for a unique individual as the crucial transition? Yes, the single microscopic fertilized cell is alive, human (since from humans), and genetically individual, but then these three attributes apply to some of the skin cells that we regularly loose in daily life without regret.

Others have seen the threshold at successful implantation about 6 9 days after fertilization, because the embryo s chance of birth increases from not likely (roughly 1 in 3) to likely, or at 14 days when it finally becomes clear whether there will be one or more individuals since identical twins spring from one embryo at up to 14 days. For those who think a soul is assigned at conception, the reality of twinning would mean that either some embryos that will not survive are soulless from the beginning or some embryos carry two souls until they split. There could not be a simple one soul to one embryo correspondence from fertilization.

Maybe the status of the fertilized cell could be found in the potential to grow into a live born baby. That is an amazing and important potential, but the egg and sperm had that potential too. We could qualify the argument that the fertilized cell does not need another cells input, but it does need millions of cells in the placenta and nurturing womb to survive and develop. For that matter, potential means not yet, if ever, not that what has potential has already become or is guaranteed to become what it has the potential to be. An acorn is a potential oak tree, which may or may not become an actual oak tree. Now there is an involved metaphysical argument made by some that the potential of an embryo is only unfolded over time, hence fully present at fertilization, but this ignores the formative role of the environment in the womb and beyond. Genes do not determine all the physical characteristics of an individual, let alone who the person will be as a person. A set of genes does not a person make. Think of identical twins with identical genes who yet become and remain unique persons.
Where each side claims justification from the same concern is in burden of proof. One side argues that we should not take a chance on ending a human embryo s life because a person might be present. If there is any chance that a person may be present, that possibility should receive every protection. Proponents of using embryos appeal to the burden of proof as well. They say that we know there are undeniably people dying of Parkinsons, Alzheimers, Tay Sachs, and other diseases. Their lives may one day be saved by embryo stem cells. How can we let these people that are unmistakably people, die to protect an embryo that even if implanted may or may not turn out to someday become a person? We should not kill people to benefit others, but we should also not let people die to protect only human tissue such as sperm or ova, even though such gametes do have great potential. Has the connection of one sperm and one egg together now made present a human being, who as a human being, should of course not be sacrificed? Notice each side sees the burden of proof argument as favoring its conclusion. For both sides, these decisions are a matter of life and death for many people.

A variation of the burden of proof argument is that if any developing human life is not nurtured, we will slide down a slippery slope into the horrific slaughter perpetrated by the Nazis. This concern refers both to a conceptual slippery slope that once it is acceptable to kill one human life there is no longer a clear prohibition to refrain from killing many, and a social slippery slope that even if there is a good reason to stop abortion at an early stage of pregnancy, the societal momentum of allowing early abortion will be such that we will not stop any abortion. Such has indeed been the experience of the United States since Roe v. Wade. Abortion is now allowed up to the time of birth and there are prominent ethicists who currently argue for infanticide. The slippery slope argument concludes that human beings need protection beginning at some clear early threshold or they will eventually not be protected at all. Slippery slope concerns are well worth considering. They are compelling to the degree that there is a slippery slope and the end to which it leads is abhorred.

Even if one concluded that an embryo was not a person yet, the embryo could still as a human embryo warrant more respect and care than mere tissue. The embryo is potentially associated with a human person in the future. Would proper care for an embryo be parallel to how we treat a human body after someone has died? Of course after death, no person is then present in the body, but we still treat the body with great respect because it was associated with a person. An embryo hopefully will be associated with a person. Bodies that may become persons and bodies that were persons are both hallowed by their association with persons, one potential, the other past. They should hence be treated respectfully but not the same as bodies that are persons. As a last resort, a body that is no longer a person can be respectfully used for organ transplantation or in dissection to teach physicians how to better help bodies that are persons. Nothing less would be appropriate because the body was associated with a person. Could the human embryo, worth great respect because of its potential future association with a person, be used as a last resort to save realized persons as well? If so, such would not authorize being used for lesser reasons. Such status would protect embryos, but not claim that the embryo is yet a person, having the full status of a person. There would still be good reason to protect embryos, just not to the degree that we would if they were people. Embryos would be available for the last resort saving of the lives of actual people, but not for flippant destruction as merely tissue. This respect for embryonic human life would be substantial but not at the near absolute level that we recognize for human beings. The question before us this evening will not go away. We have to address it. Hopefully what has just been covered will help us to focus on what most still needs our attention to think it through.

James Peterson

Other Presentations:

Play Video Welcome: Brent Waters and Jennifer Derryberry
Play Video Opening Remarks: Brent Waters
Play Video Laurence O'Connell
Play Video Brent Waters
Play Video Sondra Wheeler
Play Video Ronald Cole-Turner
Play Video Robert Song
Play Video Stem-Cell Colloquy - Index


Science & Spirit Magazine and Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary

See also:

The Relation of Science & Religion
Pain and Suffering
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology