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Three Stem Cell Questions
The Reverend Vern Barnet, DMn, 2006


You cannot understand religion if you exclude the valorization of life and passion for healing. Think about * the many hospitals were founded by churches, * the ministry of Jesus with the sick, * the medicine Buddha, * the Navajo medicine man, or * the cure which is the Qur’an itself in Islam.  One way or another, the central concern of faith is salvation, and the very term in English is derived from the Latin roots related to “health.”
     Here are three religious questions in the discussion about the sanctity of life and early stem cell research for therapies and cures. 
     1. When does life begin? 
     2. What is the promise of such research for pastoral care?
     3. How can Americans can respect every faith’s opinions on this issue?
The first question arises from concern over killing helpless human beings. Every faith proscribes murder. It is true that this research works with human cells — a skin cell or an ovum. Are these human cells human persons? To use theological language, when does a fertilized egg become a human soul?
     No scientist can tell you, and theologians disagree. No biological test is possible to resolve this issue of faith.
     * One view is that “ensoulment” occurs at the moment of fertilization with the fusion of sperm and egg. 
   The Missouri Catholic Conference believes that the research involves “cloned human beings” and says that “no human life, at any stage of its development, may ever be taken for the sake of someone else’s gain. Some evangelical and other Christians share this view.
      * Others say ensoulment could not happen until after the possibility of twinning has passed, about 14 days after conception; otherwise, the soul could be split in two or one of the twins would get the soul and other would have no soul.
    * Others say it is when implantation in the womb occurs because this is the trigger to differentiate early stem cells into various distinct tissues.
    * St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle,  said hominization occurred at quickening — thought to be about 40 days after conception. This was the common Catholic view until 1869 when Pope Pius IX decreed that life begins at “conception.”
     * Dante thought it was when the brain structures are developed. 
     * Common law and most traditions afford rights and recognize personhood at birth. 

In Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court did not answer the theological question, but took a practical approach. It said that the state’s interest in pregnancy increases after the first trimester. It established viability as the point at which the state may restrict or proscribe abortion. English and US common law recognizes personhood at birth, and most parents name and register their children after born. 
     Stem cell research does not involve abortion. But if you believe that a fertilized egg is a person, you may object to research using IVF cells. One may then be required to balance (a) the good from the current practice of legally disposing about a thousand of these cells every day from in-vitro fertility clinics as medical waste with (b) research for curing what everyone would agree are actual persons. In a fire, your priority may be to rescue the one 5-year old remaining in the building over any number of undifferentiated cells in petri dishes.
     The other form of research, SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) does not use fertilized eggs. Without genetic material from both a father and a mother, this method may seem to present no parallel theological problem. The nucleus of a patient’s cell replaces the nucleus of a donor’s egg, which provides the environment for growth so that, it is hoped, harvested stem cells can be coaxed to grow into specific tissue or organ cells — for example, pancreatic tissues to produce insulin.
     Supporters consider this type of cloning to be similar to the now-routine cloning of skin tissue in graft treatment of burns. No new human being is created in a petri dish -- all the genetic material comes from the patient who is treated.
     However, those who think SCNT creates a new person through cloning find the procedure illicit. The consistent ethic of the “seamless garment” of respect for life would be violated.
     A related objection to this research is the “slippery slope” argument. It says that investigating the very processes of life in this research is the first step in blaspheming God’s created order toward the manufacture of Frankenstein monsters, or to justifying questionable means for beneficial ends. But similar objections have been raised to the study of cadavers, the use of antibiotics, vaccines, and organ transplants. 
     The president of Yale College (1795-1817), the Reverend Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817), is cited as an example of resistence to medical advance when he argued against protecting people from smallpox by vaccination: "If God had decreed from all eternity that a certain person should die of smallpox, it would be a frightful sin to avoid and annul that decree by the trick of vaccination."
     But the result has been cures, not monsters. 
     The proposed amendment increases the level of protection against misuse of medical technology and adds careful checks and balances to the research process. Strict ethical limits are imposed. For example, while there currently is no law prohibiting cloning a human being, the amendment would make even the attempt to clone a person illegal.
     Other concerns involve medical risks to egg donors and a financial market for eggs. Egg extraction has been done safely for decades and the amendment prohibits the sale of eggs for research.

The issue before the voters is much simpler than these and other theological issues. We are not voting on when life begins. We are voting whether responsible researchers will be protected from those who would make them criminals, along with doctors who would prescribe resulting cures to their patients, and even jail the patients accepting such cures. We are voting on whether research and cures legal and available in other states will remain available to Missourians. 
     The greatest spiritual surprise for me in this debate is the difficulty in recognizing the filters we use in discerning and telling the truth about what the current status is, what the proposed amendment says, or what the research reveals. Anti-abortion rights groups oppose the amendment in part because its passage would complicate their efforts to codify in law one religious perspective about when life begins.
 
 

 

The second question is, “What is the promise of such research? -- and what religious leaders support it? 

This is an urgent religious question because, as I mentioned, healing is a central concern for people of faith. The possible cures for Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, sickle cell, ALS. multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, spinal chord injuries, diabetes, and many other conditions inspire religious attention and support.

     It is not surprising that this Missouri issue is being discussed widely and intensely in religious circles. Episcopal priest and former Senator Jack Danforth, an opponent of abortion, enthusiastically endorses stem cell research because of its potential for healing actual human beings. Joining him are Methodist minister, former mayor and now Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, and clergy of many other Christian traditions. The Jewish leadership, the rabbinical association of Kansas City, unanimously supports the proposal. Local Buddhists and Muslim leaders  feel pursuing such cures is not only moral but obligatory. 

     The Bible commands, "Heal the sick."

     A pastor put it to me this way, as could many of the hospital chaplains I know, concerned with the suffering they see: “Would Jesus condemn an accident victim to a wheelchair forever if a cure were available?”
 
 

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To those who oppose abortion 
for political reasons 
masquerading as religions concerns:

"The unborn" are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don't resent your condescension or complain that you are not politicaliy correct; unlike widows, they don't ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don't need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don't bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. 

It's almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without reimagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love it you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.

Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.

--Dave Barnhart, United Methodist pastor 
in Birmingham, Alabama.
 ==========================
Legal expert Linda Greenhouse writes today 2019 May 23 that 

the United States is reconfiguring itself into a theocracy that would have appalled our Founding Fathers. (Abortion, by the way, was legal at the nation’s founding, and for much of a century afterward.) . . . 

The Establishment Clause says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” But we don’t hear much about it these days. It has shrunk noticeably at the hands of the current Supreme Court, in contrast to the First Amendment’s other religion clause, the Free Exercise clause, much in favor with today’s majority. The only Supreme Court justice who ever linked abortion and the Establishment Clause was John Paul Stevens, now nine years into retirement and, at age 99, author of a new memoir.

Thirty years ago, in a case called Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court considered a Missouri law that placed several restrictions on access to abortion. The law contained a preamble declaring it to be a “finding” of the state legislature that “the life of each human being begins at conception.” Was such language constitutional? That was one question in the case, but Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s opinion for the court ducked it. The preamble stated an “abstract proposition” that “does not by its terms regulate abortion,” the chief justice wrote. “We therefore need not pass on the constitutionality of the Act’s preamble.”

Justice Stevens, alone, disagreed. The preamble was “an unequivocal endorsement of a religious tenet of some but by no means all Christian faiths,” he wrote in his separate opinion. It “serves no identifiable secular purpose,” he continued, adding, “That fact alone compels a conclusion that the statute violates the Establishment Clause.”

Each side attracted supporting briefs from religious organizations, a total of 67 friend-of-the-court briefs in all. In words that are perhaps even more relevant today than they were 30 years ago, Justice Stevens explained: “Bolstering my conclusion that the preamble violates the First Amendment is the fact that the intensely divisive character of much of the national debate over the abortion issue reflects the deeply held religious convictions of many participants in the debate.” He concluded, “the Missouri legislature may not inject its endorsement of a particular religious tradition into this debate.”

The third question is, “How can people of diverse faiths resolve their differences in a religiously pluralistic society?” How do we resolve the claims of those who believe it is a religious obligation to pursue cures through this research with the religious conviction that such research is immoral? 
     An answer arises from the respect we offer each religion to set standards for its own members but not use the force of law to impose them on the rest of us. For example, the Catholic Church prohibits contraception, but others are free to follow our conscience. We do not allow Orthodox Jews to keep others from eating pork, or Muslims to make others  abstain from a glass of wine with dinner, or  the Jehovah’s Witnesses to prevent others from having blood transfusions. We distinguish sectarian views about morality from legal requirements that bind us all.
     Honoring the faith of every American is critical to our practice of freedom of religion. Both those who object to this research for cures and those who embrace it deserve praise for thoughtful and honest debate. I have consulted with sincere folks on both sides in preparing this essay. 
     Each person should be at liberty to practice one’s faith without governmental interference. Those whose faith compels them to fulfill the healing models of their traditions should not be restrained by others whose faith rightly governs their own lives but should not be imposed on others. No person should be forced to accept a cure obtained through techniques objectionable by one’s faith, but no person should be deprived of them because someone else’s faith cannot accept them. 
     A YES vote protects the free exercise of religion for everyone. A NO vote prohibits those whose faith obliges them to work for cures through scientific advances. The proposed amendment assures Missourians that no sectarian theology may be imposed to prohibit research for cures available in other states.*
     While those of various faiths may differ in how to achieve medical advances, the message of healing found within the sundry traditions charge us as spiritual beings to care for one another as a sacred duty. 

=========

NOTE

*Before detailing the argument logically, it is useful to note that the public debate is more emotional than rational. Emotional arguments -- in the opponents words -- about killing innocent babies -- are minimized here, and rational arguments instead employed.

To those who say that passage of Amendment 2 imposes a a particular theological perspective on everyone, I reply:

The question also involves whether the theological position is not simply
(a) that personhood begins at conception
but also that
(b) the state should recognize that personhood begins at conception.
This contrasts with
(c) the state should allow various theological positions on when personhood begins while maintaining common law (personhood begins at birth) (or maybe fudging toward viability ala Roe v Wade) for practical purposes, with each person making medical decisions on the basis of conscience, unbound by the state.

I think the solution offered works for (a) but not for (b) which is unstated in the argument as I hear it (so much is unstated which is why there is so much talking past each other). The reason that  (a) and (c) are compatible  is because each religion is free to decide its case for its own members without imposing on others; and each person is free to accept or refrain from cures developed from the disputed research. 

Obviously (b) does not work for a pluralistic society because one theology is imposed on those who disagree.

The logical problem is related to the argument in the abortion issue. If you begin the argument with the assumption that the state must protect persons from murder, and that the fertilized egg is a person, you have no place to go in argument except to shout. The reasoning becomes circular, or begs the question of when personhood begins.

If someone defends the right of a woman in an extreme situation to choose abortion, your response is that she is committing murder because she is killing a person because a fertilized egg is a person. 

This is really no argument but rather the circular restatement of a position and begs the question of when a cell becomes a person.

================

Not a capital offense 
Exodus 21

22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

---

Abortion procedure required -- fetus not yet a person -- The Test for an Unfaithful Wife Numbers 5

11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 
12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 
13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 
14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 
15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah[c] of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing
16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 
17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 
18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 
19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 
20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 
21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 
22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” “‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
 

 

For live links embedded in this article, visit The Times
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/25/opinion/sunday/abortion-violence-protests.html
 

Opinion
The Doctors Who Put Their Lives on the Line
A decade after the murder of Dr. George Tiller, other abortion providers are concerned about a surge in clinic harassment and violence.

By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.

May 25, 2019

On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder drove to Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kan. He had attended services there before, but he was not a worshiper. He had visited Reformation Lutheran to track the movements of a particular church member, Dr. George Tiller, who provided abortions at a nearby clinic.

On that day in 2009, Mr. Roeder carried out the mission he’d been planning: He walked up to Dr. Tiller as he was handing out programs and greeting fellow parishioners in the church foyer. Knowing that Dr. Tiller customarily wore body armor, Mr. Roeder put a .22-caliber handgun to the doctor’s head and pulled the trigger.

In the decade since Dr. Tiller’s assassination, the violence and harassment inflicted on those who work in abortion clinics have become only more routine. A Molotov cocktail thrown through the window of a Planned Parenthood building, a clinic escort hit by an anti-abortion activist’s car — both episodes that happened in the past several months — barely garner headlines. While most people who protest abortion reject violence, among their ranks are zealots who believe that the perceived killing of embryos and fetuses justifies murder. And abortion providers worry about even one of those zealots being emboldened by a political environment that’s spawned extreme anti-abortion legislation around the country this year.

George Tiller did not set out to become an abortion provider, let alone one of the most targeted figures in the American abortion debate. A longtime Republican and former Navy flight surgeon, Dr. Tiller took over his late father’s family medical practice in 1970, thinking it would be a sleepy job. He soon learned that his father had quietly provided safe abortions at the office in the decades before the procedure was legal in Kansas — a history detailed in Stephen Singular’s 2012 book “A Death in Wichita.”
After initially resisting following in his father’s footsteps, Dr. Tiller was swayed by the relentless demand for abortions from women in the community, and by the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 that made the procedure legal in every state. “I am a woman-educated physician,” Dr. Tiller said years later. He went on to become an expert in diagnosing rare fetal anomalies — cancers, fluid in the skull, undeveloped organs — and performing abortions on women facing these devastating circumstances later in their pregnancies. He also helped find homes for babies women wished to put up for adoption. He came to see his work as a spiritual calling.

As legally risky as his father’s clandestine efforts had been, Dr. Tiller’s career coincided with political and cultural shifts that made it physically dangerous for doctors and staff members at abortion clinics.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president thanks largely to a new evangelical voting bloc that was rallied by his anti-abortion, pro-family values platform. Over the following decades, as abortion became further entrenched in the American culture wars, a handful of anti-abortion lawmakers, like former Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, called for abortion providers to receive the death penalty.

And abortion providers indeed started to die — not in the death chamber, but at the hands of anti-abortion extremists. Dr. David Gunn in 1993. Dr. John Britton in 1994. Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998. Two receptionists, a clinic escort, an off-duty police officer and others were also killed during acts of anti-abortion violence during that time, and there were many hundreds of nonlethal violent incidents, including bombings and attempted assassinations. One such assassination attempt was carried out in 1985 at the home of Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision. (Though the justice and his wife were at home at the time, they were unharmed.)

By the late 1970s, word had spread of Dr. Tiller’s work, and his clinic was attracting protesters who would chant, “Tiller, Tiller, the baby killer.” Some of them followed Dr. Tiller and his staff members to their homes and put graphic images of fetal remains in their neighbors’ mailboxes. Others phoned in death threats to the clinic. Someone set up a website listing the personal contact information for the staff.

Dr. Tiller sought advice from security experts, who gave him tips, such as to drive in the right lane to limit the angles available to potential shooters, and he started giving his employees “combat pay” bonuses to keep them from quitting. He eventually bought an armored S.U.V. to drive to and from the clinic, and for two and a half years federal marshals were by his side for much of each day. He also varied his route between the clinic and his home, where he lived with his wife and four children.

He took these precautions because the threats that his clinic received were not all idle. The facility was pipe-bombed in 1986, causing $100,000 in damage. And in 1993, Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion extremist named Rachelle Shannon. (Ms. Shannon, who also committed a series of clinic bombings and acid attacks, was released from prison last year.) Neither the bomb nor the shooting deterred him; he was back at work the day after the shooting. Nor was he cowed when thousands of protesters, some of them aggressive, descended on his clinic and tried to block access to it during the so-called Summer of Mercy in 1991.

Dr. Tiller also stayed strong while Bill O’Reilly, the erstwhile Fox News personality, went on a nationally broadcast campaign against him in the years before his murder. Mr. O’Reilly compared Dr. Tiller to Hitler, said he was “executing babies” and noted in 2006: “If I could get my hands on Tiller … Can’t be vigilantes. Can’t do that. It’s just a figure of speech.”

A few years later, of course, someone did get his hands on the doctor.

(After Dr. Tiller’s death, Mr. O’Reilly said that “Americans should condemn” his murder and that “anarchy and vigilantism will destroy a society.”)

Today, abortion providers face an even more volatile political backdrop than Dr. Tiller did during his lifetime. In the years after Dr. Tiller’s murder, state legislatures passed hundreds of anti-abortion regulations intended to shut down abortion clinics and make it harder for women to access the procedure. Then came Donald Trump, who became president thanks in large part to the support of evangelical voters counting on him to deliver anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and other judges — a promise that he has fulfilled, leading anti-abortion lawmakers in states around the country to pass a rash of near-total abortion bans this year.

Since the 2016 election, abortion providers have reported a spike in incidents of vandalism, trespassing, harassment and picketing. According to the National Abortion Federation, which tracks such data, in 2018 abortion providers were subject to at least 1,135 trespassing incidents in the United States and Canada — up from 823 incidents in 2017 and 264 in 2013, when there were more abortion clinics in America than there are today. And last year they experienced nearly 122,600 disruptive events, including internet harassment, bomb threats and picketing. In 2017, that number was fewer than 97,000, and in 2013 it was fewer than 6,500.
Many providers and experts are concerned about enforcement of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which was passed during the Clinton administration to bar the use of “force or threat of force or … physical obstruction” to keep people from entering reproductive health clinics. Hesitant to wade into a heated political issue, local police officers allow violations of the law to slide, further emboldening the activists.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder and chief executive of the Whole Woman’s Health network of abortion clinics, has had reason to call on law enforcement recently: In April, she said, someone set fire to the fence outside the Whole Woman’s clinic in McAllen, Tex. The clinic, which is the only abortion facility for nearly 250 miles, has become a hotbed of anti-abortion activity, sometimes attracting hundreds of protesters at a time. It is less than 10 miles from the Mexican border and serves mostly women of color, and Ms. Hagstrom Miller said that it has started to attract protesters with white nationalist tattoos.

Ms. Hagstrom Miller also worries about President Trump saying at his rallies, wrongly, that women and doctors routinely “execute” babies. “This kind of language and rhetoric,” she said, “doesn’t just fall on the ears of well-balanced people.”

The text of the proposed amendment is available at www.cres.org/2.pdf