Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Theological objection to extracting one cell from an embryo

Scientists report that it is now possible to extract a cell from an embryo that has grown to a size of eight cells without killing the embryo. The extracted cell can then be grown and made to divide and be the source of many stem cells. Some scientists believe that this technique will allow embryonic stem cell research to proceed without raising objections from ethicists and theologians.

Not so! One theologian argues that although taking one cell doesn’t kill the embryo, taking the cell without obtaining the informed consent of the embryo is wrong. He argues that we do not take organs from a convicted criminal after execution without first obtaining his or her permission to do so. It is equally wrong to take a single cell from an embryo without its permission. The embryo is just as human as the convicted criminal.

How ridiculous! An embryo of eight or even a hundred cells has no brain and no nervous system. It has not yet started to differentiate into the various organs and limbs of a human body. It has all the self-awareness of an apple or a carrot. It feels nothing; it knows nothing. It does not yet know that it is human. It is still in a vegetative state. One might as well ask permission of the apple tree before picking a fruit from it. An apple is alive and contains seeds that can conceivably grow into another apple tree. Eating the apple and destroying the seeds is morally equivalent to killing an apple tree.

Let’s consider another situation. An embryo has developed normally for a time inside the womb of a woman. After six or seven months of pregnancy, doctors discover a potentially fatal problem. Perhaps the fetus has a blood type that is different from that of the mother. In the process of giving birth, either the mother or the fetus may be poisoned by the strange blood of the other. The blood type of the fetus must be determined to decide what sort of procedure should be used to give birth. How is it to be done? A doctor thrusts a small hypodermic needle into the fetus to obtain a sample of blood for analysis. Do theologians have a problem with that procedure? A part of the fetus is removed in a way that does it no harm. However, the doctor and the mother do not obtain the informed consent of the fetus before doing the procedure.

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