1. Schoonover-Shoffner, Kathy

Article Content

New technologies in healthcare, while exciting and good, create thorny ethical tensions. A technology that saves lives also prolongs lives that, in the end, could not be saved, increasing suffering. Something that was meant to be a life-saving intervention backfires and a life is cut short. The tensions are complex and many.

Figure. Kathy Schoon... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Kathy Schoonover-Shoffner

In examining stem cell gene therapy, and enhancement technologies on the horizon, we are again struck by difficult ethical tensions. If I see someone with a severe illness and am told they could be helped by embryonic stem cell transplant, I am moved to help them. When I consider how an embryo develops into a baby, I am moved not to destroy embryos to obtain stem cells. (During infertility treatment, I faced this tension as I struggled to make decisions about my embryos.) Should we alter gametes to cure a familial disease but potentially make genetic alterations for which we cannot anticipate the outcomes (see Sullivan & Salladay, pp. xx-xx)? How far should we go in enhancing human functioning (see Meyers, pp. xx-xx)?


Is it possible to resolve these tensions?


While pondering this, God's Word given through the prophet Isaiah almost 3000 years ago came to mind:


There shall come forth a Shoot out of the stock of Jesse [David's father] [horizontal ellipsis] the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him-the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the obedient fear of the Lord[horizontal ellipsis]He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, neither decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness and justice shall He judge[horizontal ellipsis] (see Isaiah 11:1-4, Amplified).


Eight hundred years later, Matthew and Luke record that Jesus was this amazing righteous one (Matthew 1; Luke 1; Acts 3:14, 7:52, 22:14). Jesus certainly characterizes traits quite helpful for resolving ethical dilemmas. Rather than basing decisions on what he sees or hears (which I do-especially with my teenagers), Jesus makes decisions based on righteousness and justice.


I thought, what difference would it make if we could resolve ethical tensions using "righteousness and justice" rather than what we "see and hear?"


Righteousness is a state of being in right relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:21) and with others (Leviticus 25:17; Micah 6:8). God is perfectly righteous (holy, blameless, moral); all that he does is always right (Psalm 99). Our actions are "righteous" when they conform to God's thoughts, will, and actions (Deuteronomy 6:24-25). Righteous action between people is action which is always right for everyone. We are capable of acting righteously but experience tells us that always doing the right thing is impossible. Simply put, our attempts at righteousness fall short (Romans 3:9-20). God, however, offers to make us righteous through the redemptive act of salvation (Romans 3:21-26).


Applying this to an ethical dilemma, what would it mean to make a "righteous judgment" about the use of stem cells? According to Scripture, this would be a decision that lined up with God's will and simultaneously promoted everyone's well being (i.e., stem cell sources and those needing stem cells).


Sound impossible?


We must never forget that our unfathomable God offers truth we can hardly begin to search or know; solutions we cannot know until he reveals them to us. Isaiah 11:6-9 describes a time when the whole earth will engage in righteous action, where the weak will complement the strong rather than being prey. This will happen because the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord just like the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9), and will occur when Jesus returns (Revelation 21). The Lord's knowledge entails knowing everything about everything. His knowledge brings peace and equality for poor and rich, young and old, powerful and powerless.


In the area of stem cells, the discovery and development of somatic stem cells (something we don't hear or see much about in the media) might just be a "knowledge of the Lord" solution. It appears there may be truths about non-embryonic stem cells that could allow us to act righteously toward God, embryos, and those needing stem cells (see Sullivan & Schoonover-Shoffner, pp. 182-189). Abuses could occur (unrighteousness), but we wouldn't violate the commandment "do not murder" (Exodus 20:13), and we could offer needed stem cell transplants.


Until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord, let's ask God to reveal more of his knowledge to us, and to help us make ethical judgments based on righteousness and justice.