Discovering Religion: Episode 16 – Stem Cells & Capital Punishment
There are many Christians throughout the Americas opposed to the use of stem cells, which could prevent human suffering and potentially save billions of lives. Nowhere in the Bible, just as in Galileo’s age, does it state upon what grounds Christians have in taking this controversial stance. However, the use of stem cells is being lumped together with the pro-life argument, stating that because stem cells are taken from a fertilized egg, it means the egg has the potential to become a person and therefore it would be murder to use this embryo for any other purpose than to begin another human life.
The majority of stem cells are made from frozen embryos leftover from fertility treatments that will never be taken to term. And although using these cells for scientific research is somewhat controversial, the cloning of stems cells, which allows for a much more responsive therapy, has unfortunately resulted in even greater resistance from the religious community.
The process of cloning stem cells works by removing the DNA from an unfertilized human egg. Next, DNA from a patient’s cell, such as a pancreatic cell, is transferred into the egg — a process known as nuclear transfer. Scientists add a few chemicals, and the egg begins to divide, just as if the egg had been fertilized through traditional means. After a few days the egg becomes a blastocyst, a ball of about 50-200 cells.
In order for this blastocyst to develop into anything beyond a ball of cells it would have to be placed into a woman’s uterus. However, scientists need the cells from the blastocyst, which is why the next step is so controversial. Scientists breakdown the outer layer of the blastocyst and use the remaining cells as embryonic stem cells, which contain the exact genetic makeup as the patient.
These cells can be given to patients without fear of rejection from their immune system and many childhood diseases could be cured by using stem cell research. For instance, type I juvenile diabetes requires constant vigilance of blood sugar and the amount of carbohydrates being consumed. There are also many patients, both child and adult, in need of bone marrow transplants that would greatly benefit from the use of stem cells.
In addition to saving lives with customized transplants, scientist are excited about stem cell research because of the ability to create “sick cells.” The reason for this being, if cloned stem cells of a patient are purposely infected, scientists could follow these cells as they develop in a culture dish to discover the root cause of disease. If scientists could learn how a disease initially starts, they have a much better chance of finding a cure. This could work with a lot of diseases that invisibly develop inside patients, such as in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The problem is with the cells we are not using. That are being wasted. Hundreds of thousands of cell that are leftover from in vitro fertilization are being thrown away, are being wasted. They are not going to become life. They are not going to become life. They are being thrown away. So, in that sense people say “protect the unborn”, but they are going to be destroyed anyway. So lets use those cells to protect the unborn that are going to be born with diabetes. That are going to be born with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Or that are going to be injured as children and have spinal cord injury. I mean, that’s the pro-life position. Because those cells are going to be wasted. That’s what people need to understand.”
- Michael J. Fox
The Catholic Church, as well as many pro-life groups, have been the major opponents of stem cell cloning. Even the previous President of the United States, George W. Bush, actively fought to prevent the advancement of stem cell technology. In July of 2006 the Senate passed a bill that would have expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, a bill that had already passed the House in 2005.
However, President Bush vetoed the bill, the very first use of this executive power in what was at the time his 6th year in office. One year later in June 2007 Bush used his veto power for the second time in his presidency to, once again, stop the passage of a bill that would allow federal funding to be allocated for embryonic stem cell research and to prevent what he called the “growing of life to destroy it.”
“Research cloning on the other hand. Involves the creation of cloned human embryos, which are then destroyed. To derive stem cells. I believe all human cloning is wrong. And both forms of cloning aught to be banned for the following reasons. First, anything other than a total ban on human cloning would be unethical. Research cloning would contradict the most fundamental principles of medical ethics. That no human life should be exploited or extinguished for the benefit of another.”
- George W. Bush
The election of Barak Obama in 2008 ushered in a new era of scientific advancement. On March 9th 2009, President Obama abolished the contentious restraints on stem-cell research implemented by Bush over his two terms in office.
“Today, with the executive order I am about to sign, we will bring the change that so many scientists and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones have hoped for an fought for the past eight years. We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research. “
But the question remains. When does the significance of human life begin?
Many argue that, biologically, it begins at conception. But is a human blastocyst, smaller than a grain of sand, whether cloned or made from the union of sperm and egg, really the same as a person? What rights does this blastocyst have? Is this issue based on when life begins, or when a person begins?
The chronic consumption of alcohol has the possibility of destroying liver cells, smoking tobacco is known to kill brain cells, and the consumption of antibiotics during an infection effectively murders thousands of bacterial cells. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are not only destroying neoplasms but many healthy cells throughout their body as well. Therefore, by what standard are we to judge the value of a living cell? Whether it be a liver, brain, bacterial or embryonic stem cell. If the concern were truly based on the destruction of cellular life, then should we not conceder chemotherapy, smoking, and the use of antibiotics as a forms of murder as well.
To put it another way, imagine you are in a fertility clinic with a young child sitting next to you. Suddenly, the fire alarm sounds. You must get out of the building as fast as possible but you only have enough time to do one of the following: You can either run to the freezer and grab a container full of fertilized eggs. Or, you can take the child sitting next to you into your arms and rush her to safety, leaving the embryos behind.
The answer is obvious. No one in their right mind would leave a child to burn in a fire in order to save a test tube full of eggs, no matter how many “potential lives” it might contain. This emphasizes the difference between a real life, of a person who exists, and a potential life, which does not exist. Both the blastocyst and the child are alive, but we as a society must decide who to rescue. Do we save the child with type I diabetes, or do we save the cloned embryo sitting somewhere in a peetree dish, which will never be taken to term. What life do we value most?
Christians claim the motivation to outlaw stem cell research and to restrict a woman right to choose is rooted in God’s commandment “thou shall not kill.” Their argument might have some substance if Christians were not so inconsistent with their perception of the sanctity of human life, which is evidenced by widespread Christian support of capital punishment. The following men are some most prominent Evangelical Christian leaders that have vocalized their opposition to the use of stem cell, yet support the death penalty as a viable means of punishing criminals and deterring crime.
There is also a total of 36 states that practice capital punishment and currently have inmates on death row. The largely Christian conservative state of Texas holds the record at 462 state executions, 152 of which were conducted under the governorship of George W. Bush. More than any other governor in modern American history, and the same man that twice vetoed federal funding for stem cell research.
There are various reasons given for why someone would support the death penalty. One, for example, is that by executing someone convicted of murder you reduce the possibility they could ever be released on parole and hence you reduce the risk of a repeat offence. In addition, legislators believe that crimes carrying a penalty of death also act as a deterrent against violent crimes. Therefore, when it comes to capital punishment many Christians are willing to accept the death of one human life in order to preserve the innocent lives of potential victims. Yet, when it comes to stem cell research they are not willing to sacrifice a ball of cells in order to save the countless innocent lives of sick and dying children. It may be true that the life Christians are willing to sacrifice is that of a vicious murder or rapist, but the sixth commandment was NOT provided with a list exceptions. However, not every single person convicted of a heinous crime is guilty.
“Wife-killing banker. Why’d you do it? I didn’t since you ask. You gonna fit right in. Everybody in here is innocent. Didn’t you know that? Heywood, what you in for? Didn’t do it, lawyer fucked me.”
There are countless instances all over the world where people have been wrongly imprisoned for decades and later acquitted upon the discovery of new evidence. This is not to say capital punishment should be permanently outlawed, and in extreme cases the death penalty is appropriate, but if every person convicted of a serious crime were put to death within a few years of sentencing, thousands of innocent people would have unjustly lost their lives. Do Christians believe these are acceptable losses in order to maintain the current penalty system? And if so, why is less value placed on the life of someone falsely convicted of a crime verses a frozen embryonic stem cell?
We are of course products of our environment, and those with a religious upbringing will no doubt be influenced by the teachings of their faith. But all too often the only way for someone to reevaluate their stance on a topic is to be placed in a difficult situation that directly conflicts with one’s long-held views.
For example, take Dick Cheney, former vice president of the Bush administration. The Republican party is infamous for their passage of anti-homosexual legislature, preventing tax-paying gay and lesbian citizens of the United States from enjoying the same rights and liberties as everyone else. However, recently Cheney came out in public support of not only civil unions, but gay marriage itself. This is an issue that directly affects Cheney’s family and his lesbian daughter.
“Well I think freedom means freedom for everyone. As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay. And uh, this is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish.”
- Dick Cheney
For a moment, imagine someone very important in your life, such as a parent, a child, or sibling. Given the opportunity, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to support this loved one in a time of need? Would you fail to appeal the death sentence of family member if there was any possibility of their innocence? Would you prevent your child suffering with a spinal cord injury access to embryonic stem cells, declining them a fighting chance at life? Would you reject someone you dearly care for, such a brother, sister or close friend, after they’ve come out to you about their homosexuality.
It is very easy to form opinions on topics that do not personally affect you or anyone you even know. But for a moment place yourself in each of these difficult positions and honestly reevaluate your stance. If you would provide assistance to a loved one in any of these situations, why shouldn’t this standard be applicable to all people in similar times of need?
Christians are treading on very thin ice by engaging in political rhetoric that in most instances can be observed as unconstitutional. At what point should religious dogma be restrained from trampling the governing principles of a nation and the rights of its citizens? To what end will the ideologies of religious philosophy continue to dictate the aims of scientific discovery and the rights of the individual?