Sunday, May 29, 2005

Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Theological Foundations

The May 29 edition of The Washington Post carries an opinion piece on embryonic stem cell research by Jerome Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School. It's titled "Beware of Stem Cell Theology".

The article has a lot of problems. After acknowledging some significance of religion in forming judgments about embryonic stem cell research, Groopman writes:

"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."

How does citing a religious figure or citing the Bible or some other religious document in support of your beliefs demonstrate that you're "remarkably ignorant" of the existence of different beliefs among religious people? It doesn't. Groopman is criticizing Tom DeLay for saying that Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad were all embryos at one point. How does the fact that Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree among themselves make it "remarkably ignorant" for Tom DeLay to mention the fact that all three of those men were embryos? DeLay was making a comment about the lives of three significant historical figures. He wasn't claiming that all professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims would agree with his view of embryonic stem cell research.

Groopman goes on:

"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."

How would the breath of God in Genesis 2:7 prove that children in the womb don't become human beings until "the lungs develop"? Why should we equate God's breath with human breath, and why should we assume that the development of all humans is comparable to Adam being created as an adult from dust?

Respiration occurs from the time of conception. The mode changes over time, but the unborn child does engage in oxygen transfer. Even if we were to accept the erroneous concept that we know that life begins with breathing, it wouldn't justify the conclusions Groopman is reaching.

He continues:

"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."

People cite that passage in Jeremiah to argue for life in the womb, but other passages are cited for life beginning at conception (Psalm 51:5, Luke 1:36, etc.). And Groopman doesn't address a single one of them.

His distinction between Jesus and Jeremiah is misleading. Jesus considered the writings of Jeremiah Divinely inspired scripture (Luke 24:25-27). He also gave His apostles authority (John 14:26, 15:27, 16:13, Acts 1:8), and the books of the New Testament are derived from that apostolic authority. You can't follow Jesus if you reject the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. To follow Jesus is to follow the Bible, and not just the red-lettered portions.

Groopman claims that "the Vatican and several fundamentalist Protestant groups" interpret the passage in Jeremiah as referring to life beginning at conception. I don't know who all the groups are who so interpret that passage. But I know that far more professing Christians think life begins at conception than those Groopman names. As I document in an article I'll be linking to at the end of this post, Christians have opposed abortion since the earliest days of church history. If "the Vatican and several fundamentalist Protestant groups" were the only ones who believed that life begins at conception today, then they would be the only ones maintaining an ancient tradition. But they aren't the only ones.

Groopman goes on:

"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."

Groopman ought to support making public policy on the basis of theology, since he lives in a nation based on the theological concept that we have a Creator who has given us rights that human governments can't take away. And there are professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims who would deny that we have a Creator or deny that He's given us those rights. But the fact that some religious people disagree on such issues doesn't keep most of us, probably including Jerome Groopman, from being confident about the correctness of these theological doctrines of the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, when an anti-Semite denies that Jesus was a Jew or a Jehovah's Witness denies that Jesus is God, their professed disagreement with my interpretation of the Bible doesn't make me incapable of being confident about the correctness of my interpretation.

I refer to "professed disagreement" because I don't think that all claims of disagreement in Bible interpretation are honest. When somebody like Jerome Groopman ignores passages referring to life beginning at conception, and he suggests that such a ridiculous interpretation of Genesis 2:7 is plausible, I'm not going to grant that he has a sincere disagreement with my view of scripture. To assume that all people who cite the Bible are sincere in doing so would be absurd. All that Jerome Groopman has done is muddy the waters with a misleadingly selective discussion of a small handful of Biblical passages, accompanied by frequent references to how so many people disagree on the issue. That doesn't sound like the behavior of somebody who's approaching this subject honestly and intelligently. And some of his other comments, which I haven't addressed here, are also problematic, such as his misrepresentations of the views of the Bush administration.

For those interested in more information about how past Christians viewed abortion and more Biblical and non-Biblical evidence for life beginning at conception, I posted two messages on these subjects on the NTRM boards earlier this year:

Link 2

For more information on embryonic stem cell research, there are many online sources to consult, such as National Right to Life: Link

And in related news, a recent study has shown that abortion has continued to decline under President Bush, contrary to erroneous claims made by Democrats like John Kerry and Howard Dean: Link