Scott Klusendorf on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

With President Obama's executive order repealing the policy that limited federal tax dollars for stem cell research, this month's publication of Scott Klusendorf's The Case for Life couldn't be more timely.

Klusendorf is the president of Life Training Institute, where he trains pro-life advocates to persuasively defend their views. Join us as he discusses the controversy of stem cell research as it relates to the pro-life position:

What are stem cells and why are scientists eager to use them in treating disease?

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, especially the brain.

Why is stem cell research focused, at least in part, on embryos?

Human embryos have an abundant supply of stem cells which scientists are eager to harvest in hopes of treating Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other illnesses. The practice of securing these early cells is known as embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). The problem is that you must destroy the embryo to secure its stem cells.

Does that mean Christians should oppose all stem cell research?

Absolutely not. Pro-life advocates agree that we should save lives. We also support funding stem-cell research. But, we’re opposed to one kind of stem-cell research that requires destroying defenseless human embryos so that other humans may (allegedly) benefit. That’s immoral.

The President and others have stated that embryonic stem cell research is morally complex. Do you agree?

Despite claims to the contrary, ESCR is not morally complicated. It comes down to just one question: Is the embryo a member of the human family? If so, killing it to benefit others is a serious moral wrong. It treats the embryonic human being as a commodity we trade to enhance our own well being. If, however, the embryos in question are not human, why not put them in the crosshairs of scientists? Unfortunately, that is precisely the question President Obama ignored when he signed an executive order designating federal funds for destructive embryo research.

What about the claim that embryos leftover in fertility clinics are going to die anyway, so why not put them to good use saving lives?

True, they will die—because people want to kill them for research! Nevertheless, a 2004 study shows that most of these embryos are still wanted by their parents (who pay high fees to store them). And unless Congress wants to override parental rights, few are truly available for research.

Moreover, there are moral considerations that call into question “they’re going to die anyway” argument. Suppose you oversee a Cambodian orphanage with 200 toddlers that are abandoned. The facility cannot care for them any longer. Water levels are critically low and food supplies are exhausted. It’s only a matter of time before starvation and disease set in. A scientist has offered to take the toddlers off your hands and use them for grisly medical research designed to cure cancer. He confronts you with the hard facts: Many of these children will die soon and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, so why let all those organs go to waste? Nonetheless, you refuse. You could never, even for a moment, consider turning the kids over to the scientist on grounds that "these kids are going to die anyway so let's put them to good use." True, given your impoverished circumstances, you are powerless to save them, but you would never be complicit in actively killing vulnerable human beings, which is what ESCR  does.

Of course, there are many other examples to consider. In short, unless one begins with the assumption that the embryos in question are not human beings, the “they're gonna die anyway” claim doesn't work. All of us are going to die sometime. Do those of us who will die later have the right to kill and exploit those who will die sooner? So once again, we're back to the question we started with:  What are these “excess” embryos? If they are human beings, I see only one morally acceptable option: Wait for adoptive parents.

President Obama said that ideology should not interfere with science. What do you make of that claim?

Well, the claim that ideology should not get in the way of science is itself an ideological claim, and a highly controversial one at that. I found this the most troubling part of his speech. If he is correct that scientific progress trumps morality, one can hardly condemn Hitler for grisly medical experiments on Jews. Nor can one criticize the Tuskegee experiments of the 1940s in which black men suffering from syphilis were promised treatment, only to have it denied so scientists could study the disease. Pro-life advocates are not anti-science. We are not anti-cures. We just insist that scientific progress must be tied to moral truth.

The Case for Life

Scott Klusendorf

The pro-life message can compete in the marketplace of ideas—provided Christians properly understand and articulate that message. This book helps pro-life Christians make a persuasive case for the lives of the unborn.

You claimed in a previous interview that the President presented the nation with a false choice: medical progress versus moral considerations.

That's exactly what he did. Not only is embryonic stem cell research immoral, but it may be unnecessary. First, numerous  peer-reviewed studies indicate that adult stem cells are more effective at treating disease than previously thought. Unlike embryo stem cell research, we can extract these adult cells without harming the donor. Critics of the pro-life view, like the late actor Christopher Reeve, insist that these adult cells won’t work. However, the evidence suggests just the opposite. So far, adult stem cells are outperforming their embryonic counterparts.

Second, new research suggests we can pursue embryo cell treatments in morally acceptable ways. Altered Nuclear Transfer (or ANT) is one new technology which seeks a morally acceptable means of producing pluripotent stem cells (the functional equivalent of embryonic stem cells) without the creation and destruction of human embryos. Instead, researchers will use biological entities that have some of the properties of  embryos, but are not living organisms. In 2007, researchers in Japan and the United States, using slightly different methods, successfully coaxed ordinary adult skin cells to function just like pluripotent embryonic ones. This remarkable breakthrough demonstrated that pluripotent cells can be obtained without destroying human embryos. This should come as thrilling news for everyone in the cloning debate intent on using embryo cells.

President Obama said he would strictly forbid using federal funds for reproductive cloning. The headlines even said, "Obama Says No to Cloning!" Did the President ban cloning?

Here's what's going on. Advocates of ESCR, including the President, want us to distinguish “therapeutic cloning” from “reproductive” cloning. But the distinction is misleading because all cloning is reproductive. So-called “reproductive” cloning means allowing the cloned human to live. “Therapeutic” cloning means creating him for research, but killing him before  birth. In either case, the act of cloning is exactly the same and results in a  living human embryo.

To learn more and be equipped to engage our culture in this area, check out Scott Klusendorf's new book, The Case for Life. Or, it may be of interest to listen to Scott as he makes a compelling pro-life case without appeal to a particular religious position.

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