The Stem Cell Initiative on the ballot in Missouri would amend the state’s constitution to protect stem cell research and therapies allowed by federal law. Missouri would be the first state to do so. The campaign on the proposed Amendment 2 has generated more money than any campaign in Missouri history for any ballot measure or for any federal or state elective office — probably more than $40 million by Nov. 7.
Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from a blastocyst five days after fertilization of an egg in a lab dish. The blastocyst is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. It has no body tissues. The “inner cell mass” of about 30 cells provides the ESCs that can be trained to develop into cells of specific tissues. ESCs have potential for cures of many of the most debilitating illnesses, such as diabetes, macular degeneration, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Ironically, the major opposition to the initiative is the claim that it would legalize human murder. The most aggressive anti-abortion groups have bombarded Missouri with television ads, billboards, weekly half-page ads, and at least five statewide rallies.
The embryo “must be treated from conception as a person,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This doctrine is also espoused by evangelical Protestants and some orthodox Jews. Note, in normal human sexual reproduction, approximately 70 percent of fertilized eggs are never implanted and are expelled from a woman’s body. Are women unknowingly committing murder?
The position “pro-life” is an absurd misnomer. Fertilized eggs are “alive” but so are unfertilized eggs! The issue of when the fetus becomes a unique individual has been driven historically by religion, because theology links the event to the embodiment of a spirit (soul). There are significant differences of doctrine between and even within the major world religions on this question.
Hinduism, well established by 600 B.C. with the first sophisticated doctrine of immortality, proposed an eternal spirit present in all life — the soul present before conception as well as after death. Some Buddhists believe a soul has a choice of where to be incarnated.
For Muslims, the embryo only achieves moral status when the bones have “knit.” Most Sunni and some Shi’ite scholars recognize two stages of pregnancy. The first 120 days is biological life but pre-ensoulment. After this “time of quickening,” the fetus achieves the status of a person.
Some orthodox Jews believe the soul becomes embodied at conception. Another strand of Judaism believes that outside the womb, with no potential to develop into persons, embryos are legitimate sources of stem cells. Jewish scholars Laurie Zoloth and Rabbi Elliott Dorff argue that the duty to heal actually demands an ethical duty to pursue stem cell research!
Many Protestant denominations have had representatives supporting Amendment 2 and similar initiatives.
Disagreements exist within each religion. For centuries, Catholic theology claimed that biological development must first occur (40 days after conception) before embodiment of the spirit. Today, some prominent Catholic theologians propose that it is 14 days, which marks the formation of the primitive streak of cells and development into a “self-organizing being.” Amendment 2 makes it unlawful to harvest stem cells “more than 14 days after cell division begins.”
Can religious texts provide guidance? While not referring to stem cells, the Christian New Testament is instructive. Matthew, first of the four Gospels, contains at least 22 separate instances in which Jesus heals: Jesus “brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments … and he healed them.” (Matthew 4:24).
The religious right has been used effectively by reactionary forces to divert people’s attention from real problems, weaken social welfare programs and win elections.
But the position of the religious right represents an extreme departure (escape) from reality. The Bush-Cheney invasion and occupation of Iraq has cost over 2,800 American deaths, many more thousands wounded, an estimated more than 600,000 Iraqi deaths, and a massive drain on the resources of our country. And here we are in the hardest fought campaign in state history debating if using a fertilized egg to save lives is murder.
David Kennell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.