It appears as if the embryonic stem cell issue will be around for years. It seems the crux of the argument has to do with the origin and definition of human life. When I was in high school, our religion teacher really got us going with a theoretical debate about the definition of life as it relates to the soul. A few critical questions popped up.
First, one wonders if it is okay to kill any living thing that has a degree of life. As a Christian if it is theologically okay to harvest higher mammals, say, whales, and he is likely to answer yes, because whales don’t have souls. Based on such logic one is naturally led to a follow-up question: What exactly is the soul, then, and how does it get into the human animal as opposed to all other animals? Theologians attribute the soul to a divine spark imparted by God. Okay, let’s say we agree with that the soul is a divine spark. Next question? When exactly, then, does God ignite the human animal with said spark? At conception? At 3 months gestation? 7 months? 9 months? At birth? At 6 months of age, 12 months, 2 years? When exactly does this miracle of souldom take place? Therein lies the rub.
Some who argue against embryonic stem cell research argue that fertilized cells in a petri dish are human beings. The implication of their statement is that the soul pops in as an automatic response to fertilization, regardless of where that fertilization takes place. In other words, the birthing of the soul is a done deal – when the egg is fertilized, even in a lab, in pops the soul, or thus blooms the soul, or however you wish to visualize it; the birth of the soul and the fertilization of the egg are simultaneous.
Unfortunately for the above argument, Genesis (Genesis 2:7) has a different set of rules. To my understanding, Adam was a biological entity first and then was endowed with a soul. The breath of God endowed Adam with a soul. “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.”
Likewise Eve sprang from Adam’s rib, not from a fertilized egg. This might lead one to believe that the soul is something apart from simple biology. If one believes in Genesis, as most opponents of embryonic stem cell research do, how does one then argue that the soul is merely a product of biological function? What happened to God’s breath? Did He just decide not to take an active role in soul placement post Adam and Eve? Did He think He would be too busy to pay attention to imparting His divine breath to each and every soul and therefore assign the task to some kind of automated function of cell reproduction instead? Gee, that’s not a very special chain of events. Most Christians would shudder at such an impersonal scenario.
If God be omniscient and involved in allocation of divine souls, from the first to the last, He also would be fully capable of knowing the fate of each and every fertilized egg that has ever been formed or will ever be formed. Do not most Christians believe He indeed knows what is in store for each of us? Even if we have free will, can not He see into the years and know today what choices each of us will make with said free will? Even in a long and prosperous life, can He not see how that biological life will end, or at best, make its transition?
The question, then, becomes this: If God knows all that has ever taken place and all that will ever take place, and if the soul is indeed the divine breath of God, would He impart that most precious divine spark into a fertilized biological cell cluster in a petri dish knowing full well that said soul will never have a host body?
I don’t know the origin of the soul, of course, because I’ve been thinking of this question for decades, long before modern technology led us to the ethical conundrums of today and the answer escapes me. I would like to believe that each soul is a mysterious gift from a mysterious God who is fully in charge of the power to impart souls at His own pleasure and in accordance with His divine wisdom as opposed to being forced to impart a soul to four cells in a petri dish because of immutable biological laws of Nature.
Is it possible that, just as every sperm does not become a baby, not every fertilized egg becomes a soul? And if not a soul, then, what separates it from the fate of the whale which, when harvested intelligently, has sustained whole populations of indigenous people for generations?
If we are to argue theological questions when it comes to matters of science, we must argue them to their completion. The ethics of embryonic stem research go deep and deserve much more than superficial sound bite posturing.
Please understand, before running amok with emotional comments, that I am addressing only the embryonic stem cells derived from fertilization, which takes place in labs or petri dishes. I am not discussing embryonic stem cells that have been in vitro. Perhaps a compromise could be reached by creating a firm distinction between “in vitro embryonic stem cells” and “non-in vitro embryonic stem cells.” To my mind, there is quite a distinction between the two. But I’m a mother. I still hold that there’s something special about the womb.