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Two boats, a helicopter and stem cells

Remember the story of the guy who died in the flood? A Red Cross boat had come by earlier when the water was above the window sills, but the fellow refused rescue saying, “The Lord will save me.” A second boat came when the water was to the eaves and the man was hanging from the gutters. But again he refused rescue. “The Lord will save me,” he declared. Scrambling onto his roof ahead of the ever-rising waters the man spied a helicopter heading his way. A rope was lowered from the ‘copter, but the obstinate guy batted it away and shouted over the din of the rotors, “The Lord will save me.” And of course, he drowned. Arriving at Heaven’s throne perplexed, hurt, angry, and dripping wet, he shouted at God, “Why didn’t you save me?”

“Give me a break,” sighed the Lord God Almighty, “I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

I am a diabetic, Type 11. I found this out when I flunked a health insurance examination in March 1995. Six months earlier, an annual health exam said I was as fit as I could be, for a man my age. (doctors always add that part). But somewhere on the inclined plane to 48, my pancreas decided to malfunction and it stopped producing enough insulin to keep my blood sugar count within normal range. All of a sudden, my blood count was hitting the 400 mark. That’s somewhere just short of the point where you either go blind or tank out in a coma. A blood count of 80 to 120 an hour after eating is considered normal. I guess I was lucky. Of the nation’s diabetics, so estimates go, only about half have been diagnosed.

A chronic illness, I am learning, is a real burden. It’s the chronic part that gives it such an oppressive weight, knowing I’ll never be rid of it. I have discovered a new empathy with those of my parishioners who suffer similar or worse disorders, a shared experience none of us likes. But for whatever good my illness may produce-endurance, patience, character, that stuff the apostle Paul wrote that sounds so nice in the abstract but requires the spirituality of a saint to comprehend-I’d just as soon have let this particular cup pass, had God given me the choice. But He didn’t. So I filled out the papers for free diabetic supplies. I scan the literature touting new medications. I watch my diet, stick with the medication, and, don’t doubt it, I inspect my feet every morning.

There’s my dilemma. There is something supposedly just over the horizon that sounds for all the world like two boats and a helicopter, and if I don’t grab it, maybe I’m the fool? The promise is fetal stem cell therapy.

Stem cells are marvelous little things, so researchers are saying. They can be teased into providing an endless supply of healthy cells for unhealthy organs. The cells have been “convinced” by researchers to grow into nerve cells, skin cells, heart cells-in fact, potentially all of the 210 kinds of human cells can be grown from fetal stem cells. There is even a possibility of stem cells being used to treat Down syndrome babies in the womb. Fetal cells that have become healthy pancreatic cells might be injected into a diseased pancreas and provide a lifelong cure for diabetes. Or they might be used to treat any number of other disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There is a whole list of things at which we might squirt stem cells if researchers have their way. Stem cells are described as the Rosetta Stone for all cell research, including cloning. Quite a claim, and it may be true. It may also be quite terrible.

Stem cells currently come from two sources (both of which are babies in the earliest stages of their personhood): abandoned embryos from fertility clinics and five-to-nine-week-old aborted fetuses. So, if this research is perfected and receives FDA approval, all I have to do to benefit from it is give up my opposition to abortion and most forms of embryonic research. Swallow a little pride, take a shot or two, whatever’s called for, and pretty soon I’ll be eating like a regular guy, all my body parts intact. Why, after all, should we let a perfectly good embryo, one that is not a candidate for implantation in a vacant womb, go to waste? Otherwise abandoned and unwanted, should it languish frozen on a shelf somewhere, especially when there is so much good it can do for others? Aborted fetuses are already just so much waste material. Let’s be green, if that’s the phrase, and recycle those little suckers for all they’re worth.

But wait, there may be a way to avoid abortions and embryos as a stem cell source by regressing adult cells. Researchers are finding that by taking some skin cells, teasing them back to their primal state, and then growing them forward they can make hearts, brain matter, and a cure for diabetes. The research is only in its beginnings and far from complete. It may be years before anything like that approaches reality. So why wait, when, according to some researchers, fetal stem cells already have proven their potential? From a utilitarian view, the argument is unassailable.

There is for the moment, but only for the moment, a ban on federal funding for this kind of research. And, there is a great deal of pressure for repeal. Naturally, the ban affects only researchers who receive federal money. There is no ban against privately-funded research. Drug companies and biotech firms are getting into this big. The financial gain that would accrue from a successful and proven stem cell therapy is unimaginable, and there are financial interests with some very big imaginations at play.

This is one of the arguments for lifting the federal ban on fetal cell research: Someone is going to do it, is already doing it, and all of it outside the glare of public accountability. This research had better be tucked inside a government package, sanitized by a ton of federal regulations, organized by the National Institutes of Health, all to get this thing under public control. Quick. Otherwise in some few short years we will be dealing with questions of patented life, private cloning, vats of transplantable organs, and maybe the “decanted babies” and “Bokanovskian twins” (clones in today’s phrase) from Brave New World.

But that is exactly what we are dealing with already. Science has once again sped beyond the ken of ethical insight. The cat is out of the bag and research is roaring ahead. Federalizing fetal stem cell research will solve nothing morally because, whether federal or commercial, it requires the destruction of human embryos and it feeds on abortion. Meanwhile, current research goes on and it walks hand-in-hand with that negation of life known as a woman’s right to choose.

My answer to the moral status of the embryo or the use of aborted fetuses tends to be as simple as it is adamant. It is not right for big, strong human beings to benefit themselves by preying upon little, weak human beings. And if someone wants to suggest that stem cell therapy really is God’s way of coming to rescue me from an insulin drought, well, just call me gimpy.

Russell E. Saltzman is the pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and editor of Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran publication in which an earlier version of this article appeared.