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A Closer Look at the Debate over Stem Cell Research
by Johann Christoph Arnold

Stem cell research has moved to the forefront of this year's presidential campaign in the United States. This research has great potential to yield treatments for diabetes, heart disease, neurological ailments, and a host of other illnesses. Religious conservatives consider such research immoral because it involves the destruction of embryos—human babies—in the laboratory. (Stem cell research could continue without the killing of embryos, as stem cells found in bone marrow and umbilical cords hold similar promise.) However, polls show that most Americans support this research because of its medical potential.

This much-debated but still experimental field of study has become an unanticipated wedge issue in this fall's election. The point at issue is whether federal funding will be provided for such research; advocates promise that such funding will generate miracle cures for horrible diseases, while opponents argue that such promises are misleading and give false hope to the dying.

On the surface, the Republicans seem to hold the moral high ground on this issue. To quote a Health and Human Services fact sheet from July: "The President's policy rests on a significant principle—no taxpayer funding should be used for embryo destruction." But, like the promises of miracle cures, these statements are merely political. If we are to find real answers to the questions posed by stem cell research, we need to get beyond the rhetoric.

We Americans like to see ourselves as a light to the rest of the world. If this is to be at all true, we must stop letting politics override scientific and medical ethics. Politicians and patients alike must truly seek God's will on these questions of life and death.

It is not wrong to long for cures. It is hard to see a loved one dying, especially who could have been saved with medical breakthroughs. One can easily understand Nancy Reagan's call for federal funding for stem cell research in light of her husband's agonizing struggle with Alzheimer's disease. I know the feeling: I grew up in the jungles of Paraguay with little or no access to medicine and lost two sisters to what are now curable diseases. I am the first one to rejoice at medical breakthroughs that will truly help sick people to recover.

On the other hand, we must not forget that there is a divine purpose to human suffering. Since God drove Adam and Eve out of paradise, disease and death have been an integral part of human existence. Dying is a message to the living; it is the greatest struggle every one of us will ever encounter. Even the most miraculous medical breakthroughs will not allow us to escape death. Therefore, we must make every day count.

Human history is a history of rebellion against God's order—we think we can do better than God. Is stem cell research the 21st century's Tower of Babel?

We can go one of two ways. On the one hand, we can glorify ourselves, leave God out of the picture, and attempt to escape death. Or, through suffering and death, we can discover the way to true life, which is love to God and love to one's neighbor.

We must reconsider the place of science in our lives. Where does it leave God? I am not against science, but we have lost the reverence for the new life that God gives. Sickness and death are mysteries that we human beings (including our scientists) will never understand. Science without God leads to destruction. Albert Einstein once said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. The true scientists were rated as heretics by the church, but they were truly religious men because of their faith in the orderliness of the universe."

If it is true that God created orderliness in the universe, it is he who invented science. God, not people, should be honored for the many scientific breakthroughs of the last centuries. When we take the honor to ourselves, we lose the most beautiful thing we can experience: the mysterious. This, as Einstein said, is the source of all true art and all science. "He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." And Jesus said: "I thank thee, Father, that thou has hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to the babes" (Matt. 11:25).

As November's election nears, the arguments over stem cell research will only intensify. I pray that we do not let the furor drown out the still small voice in our hearts—and that we listen to that voice as we seek God's answers.

by Johann Christoph Arnold

[Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and pastor with the Bruderhof Communities. Read his articles and books at Reprinted from Used with permission.]

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