Human stem cells uniquely possess the potential to morph into any other cell in a human body. Can stem cell research potentially yield a cure for AIDS? Some scientists think so. Even if stem cell research does not produce any results that are so dramatic, current studies indicate that stem cells are likely to help provide a cure for many now incurable diseases, including age related macular degeneration that causes blindness in tens of millions of people and some spinal injuries.
Ethical and political controversies have effected funding for stem cell research. For example, President Obama’s administration restored federal funding that President George W. Bush’s administration had cut for stem cell research. In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 71, authorizing $3 billion for stem cell research. A number of wealthy donors have contributed millions in support of stem cell research, lured by the promise of potential cures. A number of companies are pursuing stem cell research, but none has obtained FDA approval for a treatment much less turned a profit from their work with stem cells. The large pharmaceutical companies are wary of stem cell research because of the potential cost in bringing an as of yet undeveloped, untested product to market and because of the controversies.
Two ethical issues swirl around stem cell research. First, scientists have generally harvested stem cells from embryos using a process that destroyed the embryo. They used surplus embryos produced in the lab as part of treatment for infertility. People who believe that human life begins at conception (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical Protestants) view the embryo (a fertilized egg) as a human; harvesting stem cells is thus tantamount to murder.
No solid scientific or theological basis exists for believing that an embryo is a human. The emergence of a human life is more accurately described as a process than an event. On the one hand, no evidence exists to support belief in ensoulment, the idea that at the instant of conception the embryo receives a soul, making the embryo a human.
On the other hand, the qualities that together form an identifiable human move from potential as a sperm approaches an egg to fully realized at some point after birth. Christian ethicist Philip Wogaman helpfully emphasized the concept of presumption. At some point in the process of emerging, presumption shifts in favor of life being treated as human. U.S. courts have often identified that point as the viability of the fetus out of the uterus. Sadly, Christian ethicists have given this idea too little attention.
Ethical analysis that relies on process and presumption respects the sanctity of life without relying upon sectarian scriptural interpretations to trump scientific data. For example, it affirms the importance of treating the newborn as a human while not glossing over the newborn’s incomplete development of the linguistic skills that differentiate Homo sapiens from other primates. Conversely, this analysis does not claim that an embryo is a human, a claim of dubious prima facie credibility given the large number of human embryos that, due to natural factors, never culminate in a live birth.
The second ethical issue surrounding stem cell research is fear that scientists may attempt to create a new human directly from stem cells, entirely bypassing sexual reproduction. Even truer than it is trite, most knowledge has the potential to be used for good and for evil. If one accepts that creating human life from stem cells is unethical (a claim that requires much more analysis – how, for example, is this ethically different than in vitro fertilization?), the possibility of scientists wrongly attempting to do so is insufficient justification to not pursue the almost immeasurable good that cures made possible by stem cell research can do.
Will stem cell research someday produce a cure for AIDS? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus healed the sick and directed his disciples to do the same. The ministry of healing consists of much more than praying, the laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. The ministry of healing also consists of the work of the healthcare professions, researchers whose discoveries improve healthcare, and many others. Supporting stem cell research is just one way that we follow Jesus’ example and exercise a ministry of healing, offering a glimmer of hope to those who now suffer from an incurable disease.