Tortured Theology Against Stem Cell Research
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 05:42:47 PM EST
As both a Catholic and an activist for embryonic stem cell research I am often left shaking my head at the theology used to oppose this promising research. This was once again the case with recently with both Rick Warren and the Vatican its most recent pronouncement on the issue.

This past week was quite a bit of hubbub over President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration ceremony. The source of contention has been Pastor Warren's divisive views on social issues. One of those issues is near and dear to my heart: embryonic stem cell research.

At his Saddlebrook Church web site Warren spins some embryonic stem cell theology that could have come out of the current Vatican.

Warren asks, "What does the Bible have to say about when life begins?" His reply:

You made my whole being; you formed me in my mother's body. ... You saw my bones being formed as I took shape in my mother's body. When I was put together there, you saw my body as it was formed. All the days planned for me were written in your book before I was one day old." (Psalm 139:13, 15-16 NCV)

There is also:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5 NIV)

Warren then renders this summation:

Psalm 139 tells us that God knows us personally while we are being formed in the womb, and Jeremiah 1:5 is one of many verses in the Bible that clearly show that even before we were conceived God knew us as persons. Life begins when God creates, and the Bible tells us that that happens in the womb.

Do you notice one common element in all these passages? The common link is nidation - alignment to the uterine wall of the fetus - being a material element. Beyond that, Warren incorrectly conflates embryonic stem cell research with abortion. As we shall see below, that is a distinction that other faiths are able to make. But to read the media, most of the time, one would think that our major religious traditions, and all of their adherents, are of a like mind on this, and other social issues.

Both of these Biblical quotations speak of formation either "in my mother's body" or "in the womb." For the record, embryonic stem cell research would only use blastocysts left over from In Vitro Fertilization laboratories or from potential therapeutic cloning work, In neither case an embryo is removed from the womb. In fact, it never gets there.

And it is what happens to an embryo before implantation that defines the difference between the blueprint of human life with the potential to become a human being from actual being a human being. One embryo can split into several embryos, can merge with another to form a single embryo and has a significantly lower chance of survival than either a zygote (an embryo that begun to divide itself) or a fetus. Furthermore, the survivability rate of zygotes is approximately one in three.

Both Warren's and the Vatican's view that personhood begins at conception is at odds with other Judeo-Christian views (as well as most of Islam). It deliberately ignores the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Methodist, UCC and perhaps most relevant of all, Jewish  theological points of view that personhood does not begins at conception.

And the Jewish view matters a great deal for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it takes into account that sometimes justice requires a balancing of interests to achieve an equitable result.

All four branches of Judaism support embryonic stem cell research pursuant to the halakic doctrine of pekuach nefesh -- the preeminence of saving a life in being. Under Jewish Law a fourteen-day embryo has the same status as water. Rick Warren seems to have forgotten that it was the forbearers of our Jewish brethren who authored the passages he cites to come to his opposing view.  It would follow that a Jewish interpretation would be the most accurate of either passage.

But perhaps more importantly, the Gospels consistently detail Jesus' adherence to Pekuach nefesh through His many acts of healing. And as a Catholic who has read the Gospels, I cannot recall Jesus directly refuting pekuach nefesh. It logically follows that a Jesus who lived by Jewish law raises a presumption that He would not oppose this vital medical research. If anything, His healing of the infirmed and disabled along with raising the dead for me is what contradicts both Warren's and the Vatican's position.

Although I am a Roman Catholic, I agree with the Talmudic scholar Adin Steinsaltz, who said in defense of embryonic stem cell research, ''We believe that mankind is given not only the permission but the admonition to make the world better.''

The good news is that beginning shortly after noon on January 20, 2009 a presidential Executive Order will allow us to follow that admonition, despite what Pastor Warren or the Vatican may think.  

There is an additional piece of good news that we should also acknowledge and celebrate. This will happen not because of anyone's particular theology, but because it presents an ethical opportunity to do great good for a great many people; and because we will have a president that is not beholden to powerful rightist religious factions when it comes to science policy. While there are indeed major religious traditions that have considered theological support for stem cell research, it is also important to note that there are also important and entirely secular reasons for going forward, and that whatever our particular theologies, these will be the basis for the making of public policy.

I want to wish everyone, whether they be fellow writers or readers, the very best for the Holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah or whatever you celebrate, even if it's just New Year's Eve.

May you all be blessed with good health, peace and prosperity!

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 05:48:43 PM EST

These thoughts need be spoken widely, This is the
best articulated and well researched post I have read on this subject. There is no ambiguity only common sense. You do not have to give up being a Christian to embrace stem cell research you only need give up the dogma as shown by religion that refuses to be dragged out of history.
   There are lot of fence sitting Christians out there that are conflicted as to what they believe and what their church officials ask them to believe.No more can scientific inquiry take a back seat to Tortured  Theology.  Were those conflicted people to read this post a large number would have an argument to support scientific inquiry as no family is immune from Alsheimers disease or MS or cancer   Love the quote by Adin Steinsaltz.

by tangodaddy on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 07:13:43 PM EST
I just wish that we can have a world, as Camus said, where fewer children suffer.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Dec 22, 2008 at 07:08:18 PM EST

I think Adin Steinsaltz makes excellent arguments, however they are unlikely to convert the absolutists. The late Paul Weyrich deserves much of the (dis) credit for convincing evangelical Protestants of the merits of moral absolutism on reproductive issues.

by khughes1963 on Sun Dec 21, 2008 at 11:21:08 PM EST

This debate will not be decided through theological debate  -- dueling Bible interpretations don't inform, they reinforce preexisting sentiment.

Just as happened with IVF, science will be the final arbiter over the use of embryonic stem cells.  Once the first child's life is saved by a cure derived from embryonic stem cells, the debate will be all but over, and the remaining naysayers will be reduced to voices in the wilderness.

Then, of course, the medical ethics debate will move on to another controversy and the whole cycle will begin again.  But one thing will never change--no medical ethics debate will ever be won on theological grounds alone.  

by tacitus on Wed Dec 24, 2008 at 07:56:45 AM EST

While I agree with you that science should resolve this issue, one tactic of the religious opponents of this research is to present the illusion that the entire Judeo-Christian spectrum is opposed to it.

I think it is critical that those of us who support embryonic stem cell research -- especially the religious -- to completely refute this myth, If we do not, it will be allowed to become a powerful urban legend (remember Al Gore supposedly saying, "I invented the Internet?" Well, he never said it and because he never effectively refuted it, it was used against him in 2000 with great effect).

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Dec 24, 2008 at 08:23:39 AM EST

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