Stem Cell Legislation: Congress Has a Clean Bill of Health (July 10, 2006)

The upcoming U.S. Senate vote on embryonic stem cell research is structured to do no harm to human life and will offer the potential for cures to diseases afflicting over 100 million people. The time for Congress to act has come.

In August 2001, President Bush declared that: “Many scientists believe that embryonic stem cell research may eventually lead to therapies that could be used to treat diseases that afflict approximately 128 million Americans”.

Despite this stunning revelation, the President adopted a policy that effectively undercut progress on those potential therapies based on the view that “human life is a sacred gift from our Creator”. Five years later, certain evangelical leaders label embryonic stem cell research as “barbaric” and “cannibalistic”, and the Vatican has threatened to excommunicate anyone who votes for, or works on, curing diseases through embryonic stem cell research.

Based on these severe indictments, one would think the religious case against embryonic stem cell research is strong. It is not. For example, the Bible does not say that life begins with fertilization or at conception, as asserted in the record by the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, the closest the Bible comes to the issue of when life begins appears in Genesis where it states that “Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. I think we can all agree that an embryo does not have nostrils, or differentiated cells of any form.

Additionally, there is substantial evidence that both before and after the birth of Christ, religious scholars and others believed that life began 40-90 days after conception at the point that there was a “quickening” or “ensoulment”. For example, the delayed ensoulment belief of Aristotle (381-322 BC) was widely accepted in ancient Greece and Rome. Later, the Apostolic Constitution (circa 380 AD, representing the work of the twelve Apostles) says: “For everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if slain, it shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed”. Similarly, Saint Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century theologian, wrote in Summa Theologiae that life is formed forty days from conception for males and ninety days from conception for females.

It appears that the Vatican adopted its current position that life begins at conception in the mid 1800’s in the context of its stance on abortion.

However, other major religions such as Judaism, Islam and Buddhism do not agree with the current position of the Vatican or the more strident Evangelical leaders regarding the beginning of life for a particular entity.

So where does that leave the legislative debate? Certainly ours is a nation of laws, but the law seeks to be based on facts and the reasoned analysis of those facts.

In seeking to determine whether an unshaped or unformed entity represents life, the first step requires us to determine whether that particular entity has the potential for life. More specifically, if a particular entity does not have the potential for life; it cannot be deemed to be life.

In the human species, reproduction involves the union of a male sperm and a female egg. The resulting embryo attaches to the wall of the female uterus after 6-10 days. If these steps do not occur, there can be no human life.

In the Senate and House bills addressing embryonic stem cell research, the proposed Act applies to embryos that “would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded”.

Given that these embryos are not, and will never, attach to a female uterus, they do not have the potential for life, and therefore they cannot be deemed to be alive.

In the worst case scenario, if the particular embryos in question are taken in violation of the donors’ written instruction and in defiance of the law of the land, and then are successfully implanted in a uterus, there is the potential for life. (Most major religions would argue that the implanted embryo in this worst case scenario does not yet represent life). But the likelihood of this happening is nil.

With a reasoned analysis of the facts in the record before it, the Senate can vote this month in favor of the House bill to undertake that may turn out to be the greatest act of Good Samaritanship in the history of humankind. Please wish them Godspeed. Millions of people are counting on scientific research of embryonic stem cells to help cure disease.