One of the largest fronts in the Religion vs. Science culture wars of our time is embryonic stem cell medical research. From a secular medicine point of view, we can and obviously should be using any and every means at our disposal for advancing technology to fight the diseases and scourges of our day. I am by no means unsympathetic to this point of view. I see very real and tragic stories everyday in children with damaged nervous systems that cannot recover, and for whom their is no curative or reparative treatment.

However, from a religious or even ethical point of view, things are just not that black and white. There is a point where just because we can does not mean we should. Nazi medicine shot into high gear with experimentation and eugenics on all kinds of “subhuman” or “damaged” subjects, certainly making scientific advancement easier but only in the most abhorrent and repugnant way.

While not always this obvious, the scientific community has a checkered history of recognizing when can does not mean should. They deeply resent any hint of suggestion of applying brakes when they see possibilities. The resentment goes doubles if the concerns are religious, with the two communities frequently at odds and at each others throats since the days of Galileo.

So today we see heated rhetoric on both sides. Many scientists see nothing even questionable about creating embryos to unlock the secrets of growth, development at its very source. The information has seemingly limitless applications. Religionists, on the other hand are genuinely disturbed about creating the very basic unit of a new individual, only to destroy it and tear it apart to learn its secrets. The basic question asked becomes when exactly does an embryo become a person with human right to life and dignity of their own?

   It is difficult to come up with an exact time from either a religious or a scientific perspective. In Catholicism, human life begins at conception, period. In the mind of controversial secular ethicist Peter Singer, of Princeton, human life does not begin until consciousness, sometime into an infants first year after birth. Most think it should be somewhere in between, but where? From the LDS or Mormon point of view, all of us lived as spirits before we were ever born on Earth. For us the question becomes at what point is the developing fetus joined irreversibly with the spirit. When do the body and spirit unite becoming the soul of man as defined in revelation to Joseph Smith (Doctrine and Covenants 88:15). To borrow a phrase from a fellow LDS Blogger, when does ensoulment occur? I think most of the reasonable candidates lie somewhere in between the Catholic view and the Singer view. Not too many people I know are comfortable with infanticide, but the idea of a spirit fully inhabiting an egg just fertilized seems very odd. Here is a review of the reasonable candidate times I might suggest.

Birth-Isn’t this just a location change. Does this really create the right for a 26 week premature infant to have every right to live and a 36 week unborn child to die?

Viability- While it is the definition recognized by the US Supreme Court, isn’t this really a moving and difficult target? Technology advances in neonatal medicine now allow us to salvage pregnancies no one would dreamed of 20 or 30 years ago. It is not inconceivable that one day a fertilized egg could be carried all the way to mature infancy via a petri dish and incubator one day in the distant future.

quickening- Certainly the reality of a pregnancy and other life within the mother becomes very concretely real at this time, much sooner for my wife than it ever did me. The problem is for a first pregnancy this is realized later than with experience in later pregnancies. It simply is not objective or useful scientific concept. Fetuses begin moving long before a mother can detect it.

a heartbeat- Legally death occurs when the heart stops, which of course cannot happen until after the heartbeat starts. While this has a poetic symmetry with our legal definition of death, it seems to me an oversimplification. I see nothing objective that tells me that a beating heart has caused a fundamental change in a developing organism. I know of know spiritual evidence or scripture that indicates the soul enters at this time. The scientist in me would really like something more objective. With the ability to artificially breath and pump blood outside the body, we now operate on “dead” people during heart transplants, ruptured hearts, congenital heart disease, and aortic aneurysms, to name just a few procedures. Does the soul of these individuals leave just because their heart has stopped beating? I don’t think so.

Electrical brain activity- This is derived again from a legal definition of death. I suppose it is possible. I do not think this is practical, however, we have no good way to measure the brain activity of a fetus. My study has lead me to the realization that premature infants have the brain activity of a completely comatose adult. It is difficult to reconcile.

Implantation into the Uterus- this is another popular point, after all if an embryo doesn’t implant it will not survive. This seems to be natures viability, as most naturally fertilized embryos do not make it to implantation. As science is fond of pointing out, if life begins at conception, most of us do not survive the first few days. Most embryos do not successfully implant. However, the same flaw you find with viability, the supreme court definition, is present in viability, nature’s definition. Again, one day implantation may not be necessary for a fertilized egg to develop into a complete and full human being.

Blastocyst- This is a big fancy word for point at which all the cells look the same. By experimentation it has been shown that twins, or triplets, quadruplets, etcetera can be produced by separated any of the first 64 cells produced by diving the fertilized egg in 6 cycles of division. Twins are alive, so they must have souls right? It is this regenerative ability that makes stem cells so attractive for therapy in the first place.

You can produce anything from this stage, but anything includes a full and complete human being. As we learn more about these cells, we discover that they are in fact different from one another, it is just that this difference can be reversed if the cells are injured. This early stage of life has a remarkable ability to heal and regenerate, even if rent into pieces, whether by nature or nurture. This is really astounding, but it really is healing from an injury, hence, it really is wounding a embryo to rip it in pieces.

The bottom line is everyone on Earth was at one time a blastocyst. These cells are totipotent- a fancy word for the complete potential to become a fully human organism. I do not know that they are fully human, but clearly something remarkable and incredible is going on here. Having a blastocyst removed is clearly not equivalent to removing a wart at the doctor’s office.

Ethically it just feels clearer and easier to stick with pluripotent cells, cells which still have the ability to regenerate all kinds of tissues but that cannot and will not ever arrange themselves into a full organism. The fancy term for this is pluripotent, and the difference is clear and bright.

If we find a way to draw the bright line here, the fight could end. Religionists could breath easier and science could just move on with its work with pluripotent stem cells. The need for a utilitarian math to figure out if this embryo has more right to life than this person with a bad heart is gone, the point moot, the conflict nonexistent. There is no more ethical quandary, just build the heart from cells that could not become a person.

So in part two, I am going to explore what the possibilities in moving to these alternatives to totipotent cells are and what obstacles and questions do they leave.

To be continued…..