What’s the big deal with stem cells?

Leviticus 24:17
Jeremiah 1:4–5
Matthew 19:18
Romans 3:8, 13:9

A stem cell is a cell that has the unique ability of turning into many specialized cells. From the time of fertilization, stems cells are used to make all the different cell types necessary for the development of the body. In fact, all of the roughly 200 different specialized cells in the body can be derived from stem cells. As maturation continues, stem cells become less versatile and reservoirs of stem cells are produced and used for cell replenishment and repair.

Why are people so excited about stem cells? Well, because of their distinct adaptability, they have the potential to treat a whole host of diseases from diabetes to Parkinson’s! Many doctors and medical researchers are saying stem cell research is one of the most exciting medical advances in our lifetime. There are two basic types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are gathered from embryos, as you likely guessed. They have the advantage of being more versatile than
adult stem cells, at least in theory. They have the disadvantages of being prone to forming tumors and, as with any transplant, being rejected by the body as a foreign tissue. It is significant to note that despite the hype, embryonic stem cells have yet to achieve any significant clinical success. Adult stem cells can actually be gathered from any fully formed person, from newborn to adult, and can be found in many different tissues in the body. They do have the disadvantages of occurring in smaller numbers and being less adaptable than embryonic stem cells. But they also have key advantages. They do not have the problem of tumor formation nor the drawback of tissue rejection as long as they come from the patient. Many research protocols involving adult stem cells are presently ongoing. It’s one of the most active arenas in medical research, with very encouraging results. Some adult stem cell therapies — those involving bone marrow transplants — have been used quite successfully for over 40 years. Dozens of diseases are currently being evaluated as potential candidates for intervention with adult stem cells.

So, what’s the controversy over stem cells? It boils down to how they are obtained. Adult stem cells can be gathered from many different bodily tissues and do not put the life of the source patient at risk. What about embryonic stem cells? In order to collect them, the embryo must be “disrupted,” a euphemism for killed.

As already biblically defined, life begins at fertilization, the moment a sperm unites with an egg. From that moment forward, what exists is a unique human being made in the sacred image of God (Jeremiah 1:4–5). So, the acquisition of embryonic stem cells requires the “disruption,” the murder, of a human being. We all want to see the end of horrendous diseases, but the murder of one person to try to help another is morally and biblically indefensible.