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Sondra Wheeler

How should the moral issues associated with embryonic stem cell research be addressed within religious communities?

With careful and chastened attention to the facts.

The first requirement for religious communities who want to made some headway on the ethical questions raised by ESCR is to get their information straight. This means they have to learn enough about the biology of reproduction, and about the actual characteristics and developmental trajectory of these very early embryos, to be clear about what we are dealing with. This includes understanding the basic structure of the entities under discussion at various points, and understanding something of the biological programming that directs them toward the successive stages of their existence. It also requires that we understand how they fit into their context as part of the living system of the body, and all the various contingencies that determine whether or not a given embryo develops, is implanted, comes to term and is delivered some 38 weeks later. We must take note of all the natural uncertainties that attend the existence of this very early form of human life, such that it seems that fewer than half of fertilized embryos successfully survive to implant and begin development.

This careful attention to the facts is essential because at least among theistic traditions, the encounter with material reality is here and everywhere the encounter with Creation, and thus with the creative intention of God. One broad and deep strand of Jewish and Christian thought draws upon this identification, and draws as well upon a notion of the "fittedness" of human perception and reason to discern something of the divine intention from the character and ordering of the world we encounter. One need not be a natural law theologian of full blown Scholastic commitments to recognize that part of how we discern what is due in justice to a being is to attend to the reality of that being: its origin, its characteristics and capacities, and the foreseeable path along which its existence moves. Paying attention to what can be known of the world is part of how we honor God’s creation, both in the objects of our attention and in ourselves. As rational creatures we "participate" in God’s ordering of the world by seeing, knowing and loving that order. Human understanding is in itself an act of praise and obedience in which we embrace our distinctive character as images of God.

Having said all this, it is still important to have a realistic and chastened view of what such attention will and will not offer us. We cannot go looking for "moral status" or "value" as if it were a feature we might locate under a microscope if only we had one powerful enough. Even if our knowledge of moral standing is partly derived from the facts and character of existence, it remains a second order judgment. That is, it is something we construct in response to what we see, and not something we read off as a characteristic like color or mass or chemical composition. There is no way to get off the hook of making a kind of judgment about the moral standing of the early embryo as part of our judgment of the ethics of ESCR. A sound understanding of the characteristics, natural history and normal development of that embryo must inform that judgment, but it will never render it unnecessary.

With great care and self-consciousness about the language in which we make our observations, characterize our findings and frame our questions.

There are a number of stakeholders in the public conversation about ESCR, people and groups who have a particular point of view or a particular conclusion to articulate and defend. These include those who have a share in the research itself, and those who face diseases in themselves or loved ones for which this research holds out some future hope of benefit. It includes likewise those who have settled moral positions on issues which impinge upon the status of early human life, in one direction or the other. These people are operating out of diverse and ultimately unknowable motives. Without attributing any ill will or intentional deception, it is easy to see the way in which those interests and conclusions shape the language in which ostensibly neutral information is conveyed. Here I am not thinking of the most obvious and extreme cases in which those who oppose using embryonic stem cells characterize their adversaries as advocating the wanton killing of the unborn, and their opponents speak of those who care more for blastocysts than for living suffering human beings. I am thinking of the more subtle judgments enfolded in what purports to be descriptive language. For example, those who fear the engineering possibilities of embryonic stem cell research allied to embryo cloning raise the fears of others by speaking of stem cell research as leading directly to designer babies. Those who place their hope in future therapies hoped for from these avenues of research speak about the target maladies as "scourges". This language, which recalls the great plagues, reinforces the impression that we face an overwhelming threat, in the face of which the moral qualms about the destruction of embryos must be put aside in favor of immediate action. Neither characterization is fair or accurate. If our aim is moral truth on the one hand, and the formation and protection of Christian conscience on the other, we will speak with care, and test the content and tone of all speech by the Pauline norm of what builds up the body.

We must also pay attention to the contexts in which this question arises and is pursued, and the context in which any answer we offer will take its effect.

To begin with, this means acknowledging the peculiar character of the entire conversation about embryonic stem cell research, which addresses the question quite as if the embryos we contemplate using as source material had suddenly been offloaded from space ships. In reality of course, the possibility and the question of embryonic sten cell research arises only because of a number of earlier steps we have taken as a society, with more or often less reflection, debate and deliberation. It is the rapidly growing, unregulated and largely uninspected reproductive technology industry which produced these so-called leftover embryos, frequently under conditions which raise both ethical and scientific questions about their use. But whether we decide we ought to use these embryos for research or refrain from doing so, the questions they raise for us all will not go away. If we are at all consistent in our moral thinking then our deliberations will have profound and perhaps dramatic implications for how we think, talk and behave regarding biotechnical interventions in general, and reproductive techniques in particular.

We must also bear in mind the social and economic framework within which this research is taking place, what the resources and motives are that lie behind its development, and what will shape the selection, development and distribution of any benefits or products that arise from it. Before we wax rhapsodic about the unlimited potential for curing Parkinson’s or repairing devastating spinal cord injuries, we do well to remember what products do and do not get made by pharmaceutical companies who need profits to survive. We need also to pay attention to who does and who does not receive the cutting edge therapies presently available.

Finally, we need to attend to, analyze, and challenge the cultural context which permeates this and all conversations about right and wrong in the development and application of new biotechiology. It is a culture in which expediency is the moral coin of the realm, and even conversations which purport to be about matters of principle given way to projections of just how useful it will be if we decide that no countervailing duty offers a barrier to our projects. It is a context in which the body alive or dead is relentlessly commodified, valued as advertising poster and tissue source and container of genetic information, over and above the ancient objectification of body-as-laborer. It is a world where globalization frequently means nothing so much as establishing currency exchange rates for transactions in which human time, energy and hope is bartered to the highest bidder, where increasing alienation from our bodily existence is the price we pay for the exaltation of the will and the evasion of every bodily limitation.

Above everything else, communities of faith must address these questions as confessional communities, those who are not just characterized but constituted by fundamental theological convictions about the source and aims and end of human existence.

The church can and must speak not as ersatz public policy engineers but as a genuine theological community, out of and not incidental to its own identity. Theologically, it means recalling basic features of Christian anthropology: creation, embodiment, contingency, suffering, and redemption, and the dispositions of patience and trust that conform to them. It requires thinking about what it means to be alive in a body which is both powerful and vulnerable, both mortal and destined to be raised "incorruptible" . Questions about the ethics of embryonic stem cell research must be entertained for what they are, part of larger questions about who we are and where our good lies.

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