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Senators turn to Scripture in stem-cell debate

Tuesday, July 24, 2001 | Tag Cloud

July 24, 2001
By Cliff Vaughn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) -- Senators and scientists debated stem-cell research July 18 with one eye on science and another on Scripture.

Debate over whether to allow federal funding of medical research involving embryonic stem cells, which are harvested from eggs that are fertilized but not implanted in a mother's womb by fertility clinics, is prompting rare introspection from lawmakers.

While doctors say the research holds great promise for treatment of debilitating illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's, pro-lifers say human life, even in embryonic form, is sacred and should not be used for research.

Even President Bush, who is against abortion, hasn't said where he will come down on the ethical dilemma.

"At many points in our history, religion and science have intersected," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, said during debate. "And at every point, we have paused to measure our morality and the ancient lessons of religion against our science and the new frontiers we explore," said Harkin, a Catholic.

Explicit appeals to "Christianity" were all but absent from C-SPAN's broadcast of the hearing, but that tradition's Scriptures were quoted and referenced repeatedly.

First to offer testimony were four senators.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Mormon, said he supported federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, with certain guidelines in place.

"Over many months I devoted hours of study to this important issue, reflecting on my spiritual teachings, the law and science, and the ethical issues presented by embryonic stem-cell research," he said.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a Presbyterian, said, "What we ultimately decide is going to be colored on our own spiritual beliefs, on our own moral beliefs, on what experience we have had."

While Frist stated his support of federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, he emphasized the need for a comprehensive, ethical framework that respects "the moral significance of the human embryo."

"And that's based on spiritual values, moral values, religious values and the medical view I have," Frist said.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said the debate centered on the basic question, "Is it a life? Or is it a mere piece of property to be disposed of as its master chooses?"

By choosing the word "master," Brownback alluded to language of Jesus' parables in the New Testament. A Methodist, Brownback continued in that vein after citing some research indicating that the stem cells grow so rapidly that tumors may result. "In many respects," he said, "they may be placing the 'new wine in old skins' parable ... in front of us."

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Utah, said the magnitude of the debate led him to consult "sources of truth" for guidance.

Smith, a Mormon, then read Genesis 2:7: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Smith referred to the passage as an "allegory of creation" that illustrated the two-step process of life: first flesh, then spirit.

He characterized cells as "dust of the earth," which are essential to life but, standing alone, will never constitute human life because they lack the breath of life.

"As an ancient apostle said, 'The body without the spirit is dead,'" quoted Smith from James 2:26.

He said he believes life begins in a womb, not a laboratory.

Another panelist later took issue with Smith's theology.

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of policy development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Smith's claim of a two-step process of life biologically "absurd."

He characterized Smith's statement as "amateur theology," according to the Los Angeles Times.

The last panelist to offer expert testimony was Michael West, president and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts. West said he too was pro-life, but that embryonic stem-cell research was consistent with a pro-life position.

West said the phrase "human life" is sometimes misused, testifying that embryos are not yet individualized human life since they possess the potential to combine or split. "To ascribe to unindividualized cells the status of a person is a logical inconsistency."

Following suit, West also cited the Bible.

First, he quoted the apostle Paul: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (I Cor 13:11).

West concluded that since the United States is a world leader in biotechnology, it is time to pursue a mature and reasoned debate on the issue.

West also referenced the parable of talents in Matthew 25, saying the medical community had been given "two talents of gold." One is a cell that "can form any cell tissue in the body," and the other is the ability "to return a cell back in time with a tiny time machine of nuclear transfer to make these cells identical to a patient."

He concluded by urging the U.S. "to shrug off accusations that we're building a modern Tower of Babel in reaching for the heavens."

Cliff Vaughn is associate director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn. This story appeared earlier in the BCE's electronic newsletter, bcE*byte.

Associated Baptist Press. Used with Permission.

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