Beware of Stem Cell Theology

By Jerome Groopman
Sunday, May 29, 2005

At many pivotal moments in American history, leaders have turned to the Bible to justify their actions. The Founding Fathers, at the advent of the Revolution, inscribed the Liberty Bell with a line from Leviticus proclaiming freedom throughout the land. Martin Luther King Jr. thundered that he had gone to the mountaintop and, like Moses, was ready to show his people the promised land. Church and state are separated by law, but our country's visionaries assume a mantle of morality by invoking the priests and prophets of Scripture.

Last week, in opposing a bill that would allow discarded early embryos to be used as sources of stem cells, House Republican leader Tom DeLay cast himself with the originators of the three major monotheistic faiths. "An embryo," he said, "is a person, a distinct internally directed, self-integrating human organism. We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth."

Secular scientists are often quick to dismiss faith as having any relevance to their work, but in fact much of our moral code, personal and civil, is rooted in religious tradition. The Bible and its commentaries are a wealth not only of ethical imperatives but also of insights into character and behavior. It is foolish or naive to ignore this fact.

But it is also foolish, and wrong, to use the founders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity as foils to support the current administration's views on pressing moral questions in medicine. It demonstrates a remarkable ignorance about the diversity of religious thought concerning when life begins, when it ends and what makes it sacred.

DeLay and others who oppose stem cell research on theological grounds might be surprised to learn that it is not Abraham but Adam whose life and circumstances are interpreted by Jewish and Muslim thinkers when they assess the morality of this science. In Genesis, God breathes into a lump of clay to form the first man, Adam. Thus, life is seen as beginning when organs, particularly the lungs, develop, since it is then that the vital spirit arrives. The Talmud states that before 40 days, what is in the uterus is akin to water, not a human being. DeLay would do well to return to the Bible, because rabbis and imams who read it as their source of inspiration would not concur that Abraham's life and Muhammad's life were defined some seven to eight days after their conception, the time when researchers take stem cells from the blastocyst.

In the Gospels Jesus does not directly speak to when the soul enters the flesh. So, certain Christian theologians have taken the words of the Prophet Jeremiah as a proof text about when life begins. "I knew you before you were formed in the womb," Jeremiah says, speaking in God's voice. The Vatican and several fundamentalist Protestant groups interpret this to signify that the soul is inserted at the moment of conception.

Other Christian thinkers find this one verse much too vague to conclude that an early embryo is ensouled. As to the embryonic development of Jesus and his being a "self-integrating human organism," that issue has vexed Christian scholars for centuries and led in part to the schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches about the nature of the Nazarene.

Theology is also the basis upon which the Bush administration opposes any measures short of abstinence to stop the spread of HIV. This position comes in part from viewing sex strictly as procreation, because God's first commandment in Genesis to man was to be "fruitful and multiply." This injunction, though, does not necessarily proscribe interruption of intercourse or the use of spermicides. Rather, some theologians refer to the sin of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground, as a major rationale for banning contraception. Yet, the "sin" involves a back story beyond procreation per se. Onan was supposed to fulfill the obligation of Levirate marriage, the ritual that involves wedding the widow of your brother. This custom clearly worked to retain the property of the clan among its progeny.

A Levirate obligation as the basis for modern sex education seems far afield to other religious thinkers. So, these liberal theologians select verses from Scripture that provide ballast, in certain circumstances, to the imperative to be fruitful and multiply. Deuteronomy implores us to "choose life"; how life is chosen, indeed sustained, in the face of a fatal epidemic such as AIDS is open to discussion. Certain people of faith, including Catholic priests, have argued that distributing condoms fulfills the injunction to "choose life" by safeguarding the uninfected living.

Opponents of stem cell research also fear a "slippery slope" that scientists might slide down in pursuing this work. That concern is warranted, since every new medical innovation carries with it both promise and peril. But those who make public policy based on theology would do well to pay attention to their own footing. Scripture can be read in many ways, and verses can be conveniently selected in the Old Testament, New Testament and Koran that condone or conflict with their point of view. If we learn anything from Abraham, Muhammad and Jesus about interpreting the mind of God, it is that such interpretation should be done cautiously, with humility, not glibly, and with understanding that we should pause to consider whose mind we are reading.

The writer is a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the division of experimental medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company