Magazine article The Christian Century

Price to Pay: The Misuse of Embryos

Magazine article The Christian Century

Price to Pay: The Misuse of Embryos

Article excerpt

A 43-YEAR-OLD woman rolls slowly out of bed, having dreamt the night before of her fifth-grade classroom--a room she knew well before taking disability leave. She makes her daily plea for a treatment that will allow her to get to the grocery store without tripping over her own feet. Meanwhile, a seven-year-old girl wakes up to check her insulin level. She adjusts the pump attached to her abdomen and wonders whether she will be able to eat the school lunch today, and whether she will eventually lose her sight.

These stories of people suffering from Parkinson's disease and juvenile diabetes represent the plight of real people. Stem cell research using human embryos might mean new mornings for people like these--people you and I know by name. If embryonic stem cell research (ECSR) can alleviate such suffering, then is it not consonant with the Good News?

I have come to believe, on the contrary, that ECSR is not consonant with Christian faith because of the moral costs involved. To count these moral costs requires us to take several heart-wrenching steps away from the names, faces and complicated narratives of those who might benefit from ESCR.

The default mode of bioethical reasoning in popular Christian culture--a sentimental version of utilitarianism--deems such reflective distance unfeeling and cruel. It was at the risk of such apparently cruel abstraction that a small group of pastors and scholars worked on a United Methodist Bioethics Task Force convened by the church's General Board of Church and Society to consider ESCR.

After months of discussion, the group drafted a call to ban all human cloning and to limit ESCR to the use of the "excess" embryos created in the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Most controversially, the group took on the question of IVF and the production of "excess" embryos and counseled United Methodists to pursue adoption and foster care rather than IVF.

When the United Methodist General Conference discussed the proposal at its Pittsburgh convention in May, it vitiated the original document. The revision committee rewrote the report by striking in particular the contributions of the moral theologians.

As member of the initial task force, I submit that we posed several distinctions, questions and answers that are crucial for evaluating ESCR. What follows is my own interpretation of the issues involved. It does not necessarily represent the reflections of the other members.

The left and right wings of the UMC tried originally to ferret out whether the composition of the original task force was "pro-life" or "pro-choice." That approach reflected a misunderstanding of the question at hand. The debate about ESCR must be distinguished from prior debates on abortion. Naming abortion a sui generis conflict of life with life, most mainline Protestant denominations have affirmed that abortion should be rare but also legal.

Unlike abortion, ESCR involves neither a conflict between two physically interconnected lives nor the rare, unplanned and deeply regrettable destruction of incipient human life. When advocates of ESCR rhetorically evoke prior debates on abortion by presenting ESCR as a choice between a living person and an early human embryo, we are distracted from the broader context of ESCR.

A multimillion-dollar medical industry surrounds the supposedly simple "which of these two entities matters more?" approach. Endorsing ESCR means endorsing an elaborate, systematic, routine industry of embryo production and destruction, an industry not likely to limit itself to therapies for chronic disease. To suggest that we will not also see the emergence of more generally applicable, and more widely lucrative, products defies common sense.

The original United Methodist proposal recognized that the fertility industry already engages in the routine production, cryopreservation (freezing) and disposal of human embryos in the process of IVF. …

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