The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Stem cell research: What's at stake?

Mark Hanson is faculty associate of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana, Missoula, and a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Missoula. He says research with stem cells (those that have not yet differentiated or specialized) is potentially a health boon and a moral dilemma. Stem cells — many of which come from human embryos — could revolutionize the treatment of some health problems.

Lyn Jerde: For Christians, what are the ethical/moral stakes of stem cell research?

Hanson: We're looking at two obligations: To end suffering and to respect early human life.

If you believe the embryo is merely biological tissue with potential, then you are free — in fact, obligated — to go ahead with stem cell research. If you believe the embryo is fully equivalent to an adult human being, then you would be absolutely prohibited from doing this. If you view the embryo as worthy of some moral respect, then you have an ethical balancing act. There may be some good that would make the destruction of that embryo justifiable, but it would have to be a very important good.

What are the potential benefits and risks of stem cell research?

We might learn more about how cells develop and how they become different kinds of cells. One could direct these cells to become tissues, and even potentially whole organs to be available for transplants, or to help repair certain kinds of tissues that don't easily regenerate, such as neural cells for people with spinal cord or brain injuries.

As far as the risks, we don't know enough about the applications to know what the medical risks would be in applying this technology.

How is this issue related to abortion?

Both abortion and stem cell research are about destroying developing embryos, although for different reasons. People who oppose all abortions will find those same values relevant to embryonic stem cell research.

Yet, many abortion opponents — including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson — favor stem cell research.

By taking the position that abortion is wrong and embryonic stem cell research is correct, they are saying the research potential is a good — a greater good than any they've seen in any argument for abortion.

How should the ethics of stem cell research affect the political and voting decisions of Christians?

All people must vote with their consciences, with the kind of humility required by our limited perspectives and the depth of the mysteries embedded in our thinking about the status of the embryo. Like abortion, the embryonic stem cell issue is a true moral dilemma, and it involves a trade-off of values. The Lutheran church has not yet developed any strong guiding statements about this issue. There's no straightforward correlation between being a Christian or a Lutheran and how one should vote on this particular issue.


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Embracing diversity