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Stem Cell Research: Are We Messing With Powers and Prerogatives of God?

The 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.

President 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 considerations.

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.

Science, 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. 

Little 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 us. 

For further reading: When Does Life Begin?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.