Cell Research: Are We Messing With Powers and Prerogatives of God?
South Korean researcher who won world acclaim as the first scientist to clone
a human embryo and extract stem cells recently resigned as director of a new research
center. After months of denying rumors that swirled around his Seoul laboratory,
the researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, confirmed that in 2002 and 2003, when his work
had little public support, two of his junior researchers donated eggs and a hospital
director paid about 20 other women for their eggs.
"Being too focused
on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues related
to my research," Dr. Hwang, told a news conference in Seoul.
Bush cited the "ethical issues" when he announced in 2001 that his administration
would limit federal funding for such research. In this decision, the President
attempted to occupy the middle ground between those who view research involving
human embryo as unethical and those who favor such research because it may eventually
result in the saving of human lives. The President's attempt to strike a
compromise between his "right to life" supporters and those favoring
further research did not resolve the contested issues, however. Today the debate
is as fierce and as divisive as ever.
The President demonstrated
good judgment in acknowledging the complexity of the problem; his remarks on that
occasion and the more recent news from Korea both focused the public's attention
on this thorny topic that involves the very deepest moral and even theological
In discussing these issues, many commentators have focused
on the political complexities involved. Others have emphasized the parallels between
this question and the debate over abortion. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research
argue that as life begins at conception, the willing destruction of an embryo
is morally tantamount to murder.
I believe there is a third factor
at work here. Unlike the debate over abortion which, difficult and divisive though
it may be, revolves around issues that are well understood, stem cell research
takes people into new and largely unfathomed waters. The idea that humans can
interfere in a process so close to the origin of life itself is frightening to
many, and for good reason. Given the tremendous power that was unleashed by the
splitting of the atom in the twentieth century, people wonder what awesome and
potentially dangerous new powers might be unleashed by experiments that attempt
to deconstruct and manipulate the basic building blocks of human life.
like God, is like a screen upon which people project their greatest hopes as well
as their deepest fears. In this post-modern world we are torn by two conflicting
emotions. On the one hand we see science and technology as offering solutions
to the gravest human problems: offering new sources of energy or food, cures to
our most serious diseases, an increase in the span of life, perhaps even immortality.
On the other hand, we see science and technology resulting in new forms of environmental
catastrophe as pollution, super intelligent computers or new life forms run amok.
In its conflicting roles as both Creator and Destroyer, science functions in the
depths of our post-modern imagination as a substitute for God.
wonder that mere mortals like President Bush have had difficulty with questions
that come so close to the heart of the matter. It's not just that the issue of
stem cell research is replete with "moral complexity," as an administration
official recently put it; looming large over this debate is the even bigger question
of our relationship to God ... or at least to the roles previously relegated,
within many religious traditions, exclusively to God. That is, are we mere creatures,
commanded by our Creator to preserve, protect and defend life in exactly the form
it was created, or have we, with the new tools of science, taken the powers of
God unto ourselves? In short, have God's humble creatures become God's partners
or even competitors in shaping a new creation altogether? The President was right
in spending some time and taking some care with this one. So should the rest of
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.