Read Part 1.
Why Should We Oppose Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
Opponents to embryonic stem cell research usually present four arguments against it. I’d like to survey these four arguments and then add a fifth.
1. Its funding is illegal.
According to legislation written both in 1975 and again in 1995, federal funds may not be used to support “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.9 Those who advocate the research argue that the federal ban only applies to the destruction of the embryo, not to the research of its stem cells. Therefore, while federal funds may not be used for the actual destruction of the embryos, they may be used for research on the stem cells of the destroyed embryo. But is it possible to separate the research that requires the destruction of embryos from the actual destruction itself? I don’t think so. I believe it’s correct to say that according to current law, the funding of embryonic stem cell research is prohibited.
This argument, however, misses the real point. The real point is not whether the destruction of human embryos should be funded with federal dollars. The point is whether the practice itself should be allowed at all. The question is not whether taxpayer money should pay for it. The question is whether government should legally condone embryonic stem cell research whether with private or public funds.
2. Its benefits are uncertain.
It is important for us to realize that none of the promised benefits of embryonic stem cell research has been confirmed yet in human beings. As far as I am aware, the beneficial stem cell-therapies have utilized adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells. Furthermore, there are potential dangers involved in the use of embryonic stem cells. One of these dangers is the greater potential of pluripotent stem cells becoming cancerous and growing into tumors. What is today touted as a “blessing” may tomorrow become a “curse.” Therefore, we must not give too much weight to the claimed ‘benefits’ of embryonic stem cell research.
Of course, the uncertainty of this research may change. Over time, scientists may prove that embryonic research is beneficial, and they may overcome any potential dangers. Therefore, we need to move on to the third argument.
3. Its procedure is unnecessary.
According to several of the reports and papers that I have read, there is increasing evidence that adult stem cells can provide the medical cures that embryonic stem cells are supposed to provide. Recent research has shown that adult stem cells can be coaxed into producing different tissues, just like the embryonic stem cells can do. Furthermore, one of the advantages of adult stem cell therapy is that it avoids the problem of transplanting foreign genetic tissue into the patient’s body. Instead, the patient can utilize his own stem cells to treat his own disease. But the very best benefit of all is the fact that using adult stem cells does not require the destruction of any human life. Currently, adult stem cells can be extracted from the baby’s umbilical cord or mother’s placenta after birth. They can also be extracted from a living person’s bone marrow, nerve tissue or fatty tissue. They can even be extracted from a cadaver. The bottom line is that we don’t have to destroy embryos in order to get stem cells!
This argument ought to carry more weight in the debate over embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, the advocates for the research often ignore it, or else they argue that adult stem cells do not have the potential that embryonic stem cells have. And that may turn out to be the case. We don’t know that to be the case, but it may be the case. Therefore, we need a stronger argument.
4. Its method is unethical.
The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, consisting of doctors, scientists, and legal experts, sent a paper to Congress, urging our lawmakers to maintain the ban against federal funding of human embryo research and to provide federal funding for alternative treatments that do not require the destruction of human life. They used all the preceding arguments, but their strongest argument was the ethical argument. Let me give you the substance of that argument:
The prospect of government-sponsored experiments to manipulate and destroy human embryos should make us all lie awake at night. That some individuals would be destroyed in the name of medical science constitutes a threat to us all …. Human embryos are not mere biological tissues or clusters of cells; they are the tiniest of human beings. Thus, we have a moral responsibility not to deliberately harm them.
While we acknowledge that the desire to heal people is certainly a laudable goal and understand that many have invested their lives in realizing this goal, we also recognize that we are simply not free to pursue good ends via unethical means. Of all human beings, embryos are the most defenseless against abuse…. The intentional destruction of some human beings for the alleged good of other human beings is wrong. Therefore, on ethical grounds alone, research using stem cells obtained by destroying human embryos is ethically proscribed.10
In my opinion, this argument brings us to the heart of the issue. If the taking of human life is wrong and if embryonic stem cell research results in the destruction of human life, then embryonic stem cell research is wrong, and it should not be allowed. Period! On the other hand, advocates of embryonic stem cell research object to this argument on the grounds that week-old embryos are not yet human beings, and therefore the destruction of such embryos does not constitute killing or murder. In a speech to Congress, one advocate announced that the human embryo is of similar moral standing to a goldfish!
This raises a very important question: when does human life begin? Those who oppose embryonic research say that it begins the moment of conception. Those who advocate this research offer different opinions. Some argue that human life doesn’t begin until the second week—when the nervous system appears. Others say that it doesn’t begin until the baby is actually born. Still others argue that we have no way of knowing when human life begins. This is the position taken by the Supreme Court in the case of abortion. In 1973, the Court stated, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” This sounds humble. The problem is that the Court goes on to condone what it admits might be murder!
How do we know when human life begins? And if a human life does begin at conception, how do we know it’s wrong to take the life of an embryo in order to help the sick and needy? We come now to our fifth and final argument.
5. Its practice is unbiblical.
I’m afraid that you’ll rarely hear this argument used in the debate. Even the pro-life advocates avoid using this argument out of an attempt to keep religion out of the debate. But why must religion be kept out of the debate? When the founders of this country established a separation between church and state, they did not intend a separation between religion and state. They did not intend to divorce the Bible from public life. They did not intend to make God’s Word irrelevant to social and moral issues like this one. The Declaration of Independence, which declares all men created equal, was informed by a biblical worldview that saw man as the very image of God.
And so, it is absolutely futile to keep the Bible out of the debate. In fact, the moment we take the Bible out of the debate, we’ve already conceded our opponent’s position. We’ve already admitted that man is the ultimate determiner of morality, and all we’re left with is our opinion versus theirs. We should oppose embryonic stem cell research not merely because we feel it’s wrong or because other good people feel it’s wrong. Rather, we should oppose this research, because it violates the ethical norms of God’s inspired Word! Our ultimate argument rests upon the written Word of God. Therefore, let us not be ashamed to bring our Bibles to the debate.
Next we’ll consider some biblical teachings that have a bearing upon this issue.
9 “Human Embryo Research and Cloning Prohibitions,” National Institutes of Health, accessed April 20, 2021, https://oir.nih.gov/sourcebook/ethical-conduct/special-research-consider….
10 Opportunities and Advancements in Stem Cell Research, Hearing Before the Subcommittee, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress, First Session (July 17, 2001), 390-91, accessed April 20, 2021, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Opportunities_and_Advancements_in_S….
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.