The Root of the Stem-Cell Controversy

placentaHarvesting stem cells from human embryos to cure diseases.  Cloning human embryos for organs and tissues.  Bearing children in order to harvest their stem cells for another’s benefit.  Having the technology to pick and choose your infant’s physical characteristics – would you like blue or brown eyes, blonde or red hair?  It sounds like a dystopian nightmare straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, but it’s not.  It’s reality, painful, shameful reality. The holocaust of the unborn goes further and deeper than the abyss of the abortion mills; it begins at the very foundation of life, at the cellular level in the human embryo. Nowhere is life more vulnerable, precious – and these days, valuable. The myth of autonomy and the freedom of choice with respect to our own bodies ends where our neighbor’s life begins, especially that neighbor who is roughly 14 days old. Embryonic stem-cell research is yet another front in the real war in America, the war on life.  Of course, reply proponents of embryonic stem-cell research, “this is medical progress.  The potential results of stem-cell research are couched in terms of continued scientific evolution, an enlightened process leading man from ignorance to intelligence, from religion to reason, while the restoration of science assumes its rightful place at the head of the philosophical table.”

But before we can address any of the perceived medical benefits of stem-cell research, we ought to educate and inform ourselves about the issue.  This may be a medically and biologically complex issue, it is not a morally complex issue.  And neither is it a political issue either, although it certainly has become that.  However, issues of sanctity and value of human life should never be a reduced to a political issue above our pay-grade.  Life is a precious gift from God.

The first important question to ask ourselves is, “Are human beings intrinsically valuable, or are they nothing more than the sum of their parts?  If we are the sum total of our physical parts, how many must you have to qualify as a person?  And who will decide if you qualify?”[1]

What does Scripture say?  Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”  And in Genesis 1:27 we hear, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

With that in mind, Scott Klusendorf has identified several important terms and definitions to know when you read or hear about stem-cell research.

“Stem cells Stem cells are fast growing, unspecialized cells that can reproduce themselves and grow new organs for the body. All 210 different types of human tissue originate from these primitive cells. Because they have the potential to grow into almost any kind of tissue, including nerves, bones, and muscle, scientists believe that the introduction of healthy stem cells into a patient may restore lost function to damaged organs. Human embryos have an abundant supply of stem cells which scientists are eager to harvest.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) involves stripping 14 day-old human embryos of their stem cells so that they can be transplanted into the bodies of those suffering from illness.  Extracting the cells kills the human embryo, reducing it to nothing more than research fodder.

An Embryo is a living, whole, human organism (a human being) in the embryonic stage of development.  All the embryo needs to live is a proper environment and adequate nutrition, the very same thing all infants, toddlers, adolescents, and adults need.”[2]

A 14 day old human embryo may look like a tadpole, but it’s not.  A human embryo in the early stages of life is no less human.  The size of the human embryo does not change its intrinsic value of life.  A human embryo is a person no less than the eighty year old man is a human.  The level of development does not change the fact that the human embryo has intrinsic value.  The environment does not change this embryo’s value or make it less human.  It is every bit as human in the mother’s fallopian tubes and womb as it is when it is born.  And the embryo’s dependence upon others for life does not negate its intrinsic value.  A two year old is dependent on its parents for everything and yet it would be absurd to suggest we start harvesting toddlers for medical research.

Too often the debate about embryonic stem cell research focuses on the end result, the potential for revolutionary healing and medical advances.  However, the most important questions are the simple ones: When does life begin?  What is the unborn?  The answers are surprisingly simple: life begins at conception.  The unborn are human.  They might be smaller, more dependent, in a different environment than adults, and even less developed, but they are no less human.

To paraphrase Greg Koukl’s often quoted statement on abortion, “If the embryo is not a human being then no justification for embryonic stem cell research is necessary.”  But if the embryo is human, no justification for embryonic stem cell research is adequate.  As one pro-life advocate has said, “you have to have a human being to have human stem cells.”[3]  Here we are reminded of Psalm 139, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

While the politics and consequences may seem complex, the issue of embryonic stem cell research is not.  Perhaps mother’s advice is best: two wrongs don’t make a right.  In ethical terms, the end (potential healing) does not justify the means (killing human embryos).  In fact, embryonic stem cell research is an unnecessary evil.  Stem cells are located in adults as well as umbilical cords, causing no harm or death to the human being those cells are drawn from. In fact, “Startling new evidence indicates that adult stem cells are not only effective alternatives to destructive embryo research, but are better at battling disease.  We can extract these adult stem cells without killing the donor…the choice between medical progress and moral principle is a false dilemma.  We can pursue the cure of disease in morally acceptable ways.”[4]

Sadly, the issue of stem cell research has been politically hijacked and used to make election promises and executive orders.  Protecting and supporting the value and sanctity of life, however, is not primarily a political issue.  It is a moral issue.  We have been given God’s Word.  He has given us reason and logic to make a winsome and thoughtful advocacy for life.  He has given us voices to speak out, hands to write letters to our legislators, and compassionate hearts to care for all human life, from the embryo to the end of life. And it is there, in God’s Word, where He declares that the Virgin conceived a Son by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word. Jesus became a human embryo for us. He was born for us. He obeyed his earthly parents for us. He increased in wisdom and stature with God and man for us. He lived, suffered, died, and rose for us as the God-man in human flesh that we need. And because Christ gave his life – and still lives – for us, we too live for others, especially the vulnerable and the least among us.


For more information on this issue and others, check out the website of Stand to Reason at , Lutherans for Life at and a rich treasure trove of resources at LC-MS Life Ministries .



[1] Klusendorf, Scott.  Harvesting the Unborn: The Ethics of Embryo Stem Cell Research.  2001.

[2] Klusendorf, Scott.  Harvesting the Unborn: The Ethics of Embryo Stem Cell Research.  2001.

[3] Koukl, Greg.  Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Means and Ends.  2005.

[4] Klusendorf, Scott.  Harvesting the Unborn: The Ethics of Embryo Stem Cell Research.  2001.

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