I was privileged yesterday to have had a very lengthy (in the area of four hours) conversation with someone whose ideas are so perfectly opposed to mine that I almost think I hallucinated the whole thing. My only evidence remaining that it happened is that I am in the room with the guy right now, and he seems to recall the conversation… And he also seems to recall that we have almost perfect disagreement on all points, so I feel comfortable at this point with the idea that I actually had this conversation.
To start, I am going to describe this man as the most intelligent Fox News viewer I have ever spoken to (at the least), and certainly is more intelligent than I ever thought a Fox News viewer had the capacity to be. That being said, his grasp of evidence was incredibly skewed, and his tactic of discussion incredibly… Well, he was certainly sincere, but to me it seems his beliefs are quite disingenuous.
When we arrived on the topic of Stem Cell Research and more specifically Embryonic Stem Cell research, it was the choice quote that I made the title of this post that really brought me to a screeching halt. It came down to an argument of joint biology combined with the legendary arithmetic of souls. “A blastocyst,” to his credit he was familiar with what the term, “is a human being just as much as you or me.”
My reply came from the perspective of my motto, to bring more happiness than I take, and I replied “If embryonic stem cell research had even one half of one percent chance to allow even a single quadriplegic to walk, it would be a worthwhile field to study.”
“Would you,” he patiently intoned, “Sacrifice a human being so you could walk again?”
This gave me pause, and I will admit that I was stymied a little. I was not stymied because I thought he had the right of it, but because it was at this moment that the root, the core of the issue to the two of us was different, and I was not sure I had the evidence that I would need to even tell him was my side is let alone have him believe it.
It was only after the conversation, during my later musings and research, that several points began to coalesce in my mind. The first of the points that I believe came to serve my side comes in the form of spontaneous abortion (or, to use the more common term, miscarriage). The National Institutes for Health, an organization in the United States, estimates that over 50% of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion before the end of the first trimester. Now, given the US birth rate (2014) of 13.62/1000 persons, we can reason that there are some 360,000 or so pregnancies wherein the fetus is killed not by doctors, not be intent, but by the mother’s own body for reasons that are unclear or difficult to study. To rephrase an idea I first heard from Sam Harris, if you are worried about abortion, you should worry about God–surely he is the most prolific abortionist of all.
If we are going to get into the arithmetic of souls, what happens to the souls of these spontaneously miscarried first trimester fetuses? In the Catholic tradition, a soul is imparted at conception, and many other Christian denominations agree. What happens, then, to these 360,000 excess souls? The souls of the children that die less than 90 days after they are conceived? Did God craft that soul in His hands, in His heart, for the purpose of killing it before it had a brain?
I will leave the answer to that question as an exercise to the reader, and move on to my next point.
The cells used in embryonic stem cell research are grown in a petri dish and would not otherwise be implanted in a woman. These embryos, used for medical research on generally the third day of development, are about 150 cells in size and are not recognizable as anything human unless viewed at the level of DNA. If I lined up 1000 microscopes with 1000 different 3 day old embryos in them, you would not be able to find the human among them. If I lined up 2 microscopes, you would not be able to tell the difference. But even then, that isn’t the point.
These embryos serve an incredibly high calling. If you believe they have a soul, then that soul could go to making a person walk. That soul could go to preserving the soul of a young person dying in a burn ward. That soul could go to allowing the blind to see.
If you want to compare it to the story of Jesus, that soul could be described as allowing the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and may open the very door to allowing the deceased to walk again. (That last one is exaggeration, I just wanted to complete the metaphor.)
I was told by this man that embryonic stem cell research was a worthless field, and that no breakthroughs had come or could come from it. I did not speak to it at the time because I have not followed the field closely, but my original thought was that “Well, of course not much has come from it… It is illegal in the United States, the country where most pharmaceutical research is done.” I have since checked in on it.
At its peak, there were two firms researching embryonic stem cell treatments, and one went under due to lack of investment (no one would invest in it out of fear of legal repercussions, which is sadly very valid). The second, though, has made breakthroughs of incredible importance, and did so on its first attempt on humans. In 2012, ACT (Advanced Cell Technology) performed a clinical trial based on embryonic stem cell research that restored sight to a man with macular degeneration so bad that it had caused blindness. Macular degeneration is a process that is not otherwise reversible, and generally affects all people as they age to varying degrees. This man, blinded, was obviously less lucky — generally you end up with sight degradation, but not complete blindness.
They reversed the macular degeneration. I will type that again, so it is clear. It was reversed. It was not just stopped, resulting in his vision being static; they restored the dead nerves. These are the types or procedures that could restore walking in humans, as nerve regrowth has been a problem with human healing for … Well, as long as medicine has been a thing.
This is the medical field that my partner in discussion said was dead and worthless. This brings me no end to my sadness, as I know there are more people (certainly more in the United States) that think as he does, and fewer who think as I do.
Why has growth in this field been so slow? Well, slow is a bit of a misused word… It is a field that is very young, less than two decades old. And in that two decades, we have restored sight to the blind. Perhaps there is a fear that we are treading upon the toes of miracles, but I believe that if humans can create miracles, we have something akin to obligation to do so. In any case, the reason that growth is so slow is due to staunch religious opposition even to investigating this. I would think that the knowledge that as many as 50% of all pregnancies ending (50% of all fetuses dying) should give you the required perspective to realize that the purpose to which embryos in stem cell research are put is far greater than could possibly be stated merely in words by some small time blogger. The destruction of 10,000 embryos today could save the life of a trillion people over the future of human history, and yet the progress is stymied by the fact that a soul may be destroyed in the process?
This does not seem the fault of doctors or scientists, this seems the kind of thing one should ask God directly. Why would He, in His infinite wisdom, destroy half of the souls he creates before there is something recognizable as a body attached to them? Why would He create a universe where the answer to an infinite number of medical conditions lies at the heart of a cluster of cells so small that a fly could not even see them for standing on them?
God, surely, had the ability to create us with the ability to heal from things such as a break of our spinal cord… But He did not. God, surely, could have placed the answer to these medical issues in a place that would not require the destruction of embryos… But He did not. God, surely, could have told us when a soul is imparted upon a human being… But He did not.
The answers to all of the above questions of great moral weight have never been in the hands of God, but in the hands of men who care more about the suffering of human beings who think and feel than they do about the theological arithmetic of souls. Perhaps there is a soul imparted at conception, but if there is God spared no word in the Bible to that effect. Perhaps the souls of children are subject to different laws than the souls of adults, for surely they cannot have given God any cause to punish them aside from their original sin… But a strict reading of original sin means they go to hell. If the souls of destroyed embryos go to hell, surely the question should be raised to God why it is He who destroys half of all souls before they have the ability to see, to think, to breath, even to feel.
And what if those souls go to heaven? We are then given to wonder why anyone would want to stop stem cell research when the outcomes would be 100% positive? A soul goes to heaven, and an additional soul is spared from pain, given sight, given the ability to walk. Everybody wins!
You end up with an odd question, if you probe the depths of this too deeply. What does the soul of a cluster of 150 cells look like? When it goes to heaven, does it have a personality? Does it have the ability to feel? If it goes to hell, what is it that arrives in hell? Are Satan’s floors littered with 150 cell souls, so small he does not even realize they have arrived? How does one torture these souls? To step on them would do nothing according to any physics we know. To throw them in fire eternal, where the flame never quenches and the worm never dies, even that would do nothing — for the cells have no nervous system.
Does God impart upon them the soul of their fully developed selves? Does God give to them an adult soul, only to snuff half of those souls out? If so, what is wrong with your God? Why would anyone worship such a being? If the souls of these dead embryos go to heaven, then perhaps there is some mercy in your God, but if they do not, if these souls go to hell as punishment for Adam’s original sin, I would not worship such an evil God under threat of eternal hellfire. Such a tyrant the world has never known; the death of six million Jews? God has snuffed out one hundred thousand times more than that, even before they saw the light of day, drew their first breath. If He sent that number to hell, if He crafted those souls to the purpose of the Pit of Hellfire, He does not deserve worship. He deserves war.
These are all idle speculations, of course — there is no theological evidence either way, to know what happens to these souls. God did not see fit to tell us. Does that not worry you, if you believe in the soul at conception? Does God have something to hide?
I believe in the goodness of most human beings. There are evil among us, but they are not the majority.
I believe that the humans who work in stem cell research are not murderers, but men and women with the goal of alleviating suffering, of curing the sick, of giving the blind to see and the lame to walk. I would worship these humans more readily than I would worship a God who crafts souls only to snuff them out before the mother knows she is pregnant. Unless those souls get a free ride to Heaven, of course — if they do, I will give your God a passing grade. It is pointless, mind, that He would create a soul, place it in an embryo, snuff it out, and recall it to Himself in under 8 weeks, mind — an act of futility, almost a waste of effort, but as I have been told, His ways are mysterious, His plans inscrutable.
After you have read this, tell me in the comments, please. Tell me what it is that has you in opposition of embryonic stem cell research. Tell me what it is in your faith that sees the suffering of a blind man, the suffering of a quadriplegic, the suffering of all those around you, and says “No, I will stand in opposition of helping those people.”
I do not see it, I cannot understand it, and it is in this arena that the darkness of your beliefs snuffs out so much of the light of your religion to me. I cannot see the love of it. I cannot see the glory of it. I cannot see the Hand of your God in it.