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Destructive Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In this article, we will look at why the Orthodox Church has taken such a stand, how the Church has always stood uncompromisingly for the personhood of the human embryo, and what moral alternatives exist for stem cell research.

Destructive Embryonic Stem Cell Research

By Father Mark Hodges

THE STEM CELL DEBATE IS about the value of human life at its beginning. Stem cells are “blank” cells which can become all 210 different kinds of human tissue. Researchers hope that someday these cells could provide cures for all kinds of serious diseases, even repairing vital organs. We have stem cells throughout our bodies, but they are most abundant in human embryos. Retrieving embryonic stem cells, however, requires killing those human beings. A raging debate is going on in our nation now, over whether or not taxes should support killing human embryos in order to harvest their stem cells for experimentation.

Many influential groups have taken sides in the debate. You can guess where the pro-abortion groups stand. Drug and research companies also defend destructive embryonic stem cell research. Pro-life groups, of course, are against it. The Vatican condemned research using human embryos as “gravely immoral,” because removing cells kills an unborn child. U.S. Senator Sam Brownback debated on the floor of the senate: “For the first time in our history, it is accept-able for medical researchers to kill one human being to help save another. Ultimately, what lies at the heart of this debate is our view of the human embryo. The central question in this debate is simple: Is the human embryo a person or a piece of property? If unborn persons are living beings, they have dignity and worth, and they deserve protection under the law from harm and destruction. If, however, unborn per-sons are a piece of property, then they can be destroyed with the con-sent of their owner.”

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Orthodox Church has spoken, too. The position of the Orthodox Church on embryonic stem cell research is, “In light of the fact that Orthodox Christianity accepts the fact that human life begins at conception, the extraction of stem cells from embryos, which involves the willful taking of human life — the embryo is human life and not just a clump of cells — is considered morally and ethically wrong in every instance.”

In this article, we will look at why the Orthodox Church has taken such a stand, how the Church has always stood uncompromisingly for the personhood of the human embryo, and what moral alternatives exist for stem cell research.

Legally, research on human embryos is allowed because of a faulty Supreme Court definition of “personhood” at “viability” (when a baby can lie out-side his/her mother) as worthy of state interest for legal protection. In fact, the whole pro-abortion argument hinges on the lie that there is such a thing as human life which is less than a person, hence unworthy of legal protection. Conversely, Orthodox Christians affirm the image of God from the beginning of human life, and we do not say at any time of development that one human being is of less value or less of a person than another human being.

The Church Condemns Abortion At Any Stage

Stem cells can be “harvested” from human embryos only by killing them, while the Church has always denounced any such killing and championed the sanctity of human life. The earliest extra-biblical document we have, The Didache, commands, “Do not murder a child by abortion,” and warns that “the Way of Death is filled with people who are … murderers of children and abortionists of God’s creatures” (5:1-2). The Epistle of Barnabas, another very early document, was equally clear: “You shall not destroy your conceptions before they are brought forth.” Both call the embryo a “child.” St. Clement of Alexandria, in the third century, used Luke 1:41 (where John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb) to prove that an embryo is a living person. He calls the earliest conceived embryos “human beings who are given birth by Divine Providence,” and he condemns “those who use abortifacient medicines …, causing the outright destruction, together with the fetus, of the whole human race.”

St. John Chrysostom called abortion “murder before birth,” exhorting, “Why do you abuse the gift of God, and fight with His laws … and make the chamber of procreation a chamber for murder, and arm the woman that was given for childbearing for slaughter?” So also so many others, in fact all Fathers and all Councils of the Church, unanimously condemn abortion at any stage of development, acknowledging that life begins at conception. The basis of the Church’s fervent opposition to abortion was that the preborn are God-created human beings. The distinguishing mark of the Christian position was concern for the fetus as a person.

It is sometimes said that the Bible is silent on abortion, but that’s not true. While the word “abortion” isn’t in the Bible, the New Testament for-bids pharmakeia, the use of potions or poisons which cause abortion. Galatians 5:20 condemns pharmakeia along with fornication, impurity, licentiousness (promiscuity) “and the like.” The context makes clear that abortion is what is being prohibited. Pharmakeia is one of the wicked deeds of Babylon, deceiving the nations (Rev. 18:23). It is an activity of unrepentant evil-doers (Rev. 9:21).

Today the Church continues to decry abortion, no matter how soon after conception. Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, of blessed memory, insisted: “The fact that [an abortion] takes place at an initial stage of the human life process … does not change the nature of the act of abortion, being killing …” The Twenty-third Clergy-Lay Congress of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America (1976) issued this statement: “The Orthodox Church has a definite, formal, and intended attitude toward abortion. It condemns all procedures purporting to abort the embryo or fetus, whether by surgical or medical means. The Orthodox Church brands abortion as murder, that is, the premeditated termination of the life of a human being. Decisions of the Supreme Court and State Legislatures by which abortion is allowed, with or without restrictions, should be viewed by practicing Christians as an affront to their beliefs in the sanctity of life.”

The Church Teaches Life Begins At Conception

The Church has always resoundly affirmed that human life — and She does not distinguish human life from human personhood — begins at conception. This is most obvious in our Feasts celebrating the conception of Christ at Annunciation, the conception of the Theotokos, and the conception of John the Baptist, all of which have hymns proclaiming the personhood of Jesus, Mary, and John. At John’s conception, the Church proclaims: “From a barren womb buds forth today the fruit of prayer, John the Forerunner … For, behold, the Herald of repentance begins to take flesh in his mother’s womb.” The idea that what is conceived is a “potential” entity that sometime later becomes a person is completely foreign and antithetical to Orthodox Tradition. John himself was conceived, not a “conceptus” with only potential for personhood. The whole amazement of the Annunciation is that in Mary’s womb was a Person, not just a “fertilized egg.” At the Feast of the Annunciation, the Church sings about Mary: “She conceived You, the pre-eternal God, who was pleased to become man for the salvation of our souls.” We marvel with the angels, that “He who cannot be contained is contained in a womb.” This is the mystery of the Christian Faith, and it teaches us that the womb holds persons, not things.

It is important to note in all this that the point at which the baby can live outside his mother (“viability”) is utterly irrelevant. A human embryo may be totally dependent on his mother for nutrition and protection, but he is still a person. Bishop John Zizioulas teaches that “person is prior to being.” Just as we can’t speak of “divinity” without personhood (there is no impersonal “Force” but a Tri-Personal God), so also we can’t speak of a human existence which is less than personal. If a human exists, s/he is a person. Also irrelevant is the Latin debate over “ensoulment.”

In the West, St. Augustine fluctuated on the question of the soul’s origin, and St. Jerome made a distinction between formed and unformed, but both unequivocally condemned abortion at any gestational stage. Orthodox ethicist Fr. Stanley Harakas teaches, “The Roman Catholic theological tradition has long involved itself in the dispute regarding when the soul enters the body, and how this takes place, thus giving credence to the quickening theory. The Orthodox Christian Tradition has never done so. In fact, St. Basil, in his second canon, makes a point in ruling out this kind of discussion: … ‘Among us there is no exact definition of that which is formed and that which is unformed.’ He goes on to indicate that … destruction of the embryo is murder.”

St. Basil the Great repeatedly affirmed, “Those who give potions for the destruction of the child conceived in the womb are murderers … A woman who deliberately destroys a fetus is answerable for murder.” Significantly, St. Gregory of Nyssa affirmed that the fetus possessed a soul from conception: “There is no question about that which is bred in the uterus … The point of commencement of existence is one and the same for body and soul.” St. Gregory considers there no difference, in terms of human personhood, between a new-born and the developing baby in the womb. He writes that an infant has “no advantage over the embryo in the womb except that he has seen the air.” He takes great pains to prove that from the baby’s earliest beginning, the child is not only alive but endowed with a personal, human soul. “No one with good sense would imagine that the origin of the soul is later and younger than the formation of the bodies … Soul and body have one and the same beginning … We understand that a common transition into being takes place for the compound constituted from both soul and body. The one does not go before, nor the other come later.”

Holy Scripture calls pregnancy — from the moment of conception — “to be with child” (Isaiah 7:14). King David wrote, “You formed my inward parts, You knit me together in my mother’s womb … You know me right well; my frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret … Your eyes beheld my unformed substance” (Ps. 139:13-17). At the earliest stage of development, not yet visibly recognizable in their “unformed substance,” the tiniest individuals are the subjects of God’s love as persons. Clearly, the baby in the womb is of equal value to human life outside the womb.

ANY abortifacient — no matter how immediately applied after conception — is absolutely condemned by holy Scripture, the Fathers, and the Councils of the Church. Categories of development (“zygote,” “embryo,” “fetus”) are modern inventions for more technical description of the developing child, not Church-sanctioned divisions in stages of value. (Even the Latin word “fetus” simply means “unborn baby,” at any stage after conception.) The Church unanimously affirms human life starts at the very beginning, conception, not at a later stage. Modern medicine affirms what Orthodoxy has always known: Dr. Jerome Lyeume, geneticist who discovered the genetic basis for Downs Syndrome, writes, “Life has a very long history, but each human being has a very neat beginning: the moment of conception.”

At no time in gestation is there a change, going from being “lifeless” to being “alive.” Dr. E. Blechschmidt explains, “A human being does not become a human being, but rather is a human being from the instant of its fertilization.” He is never just “there,” formed but without life, as was mistakenly thought by some in the past. Rather, the pre-born child is already a functioning human being whose development becomes more and more complex. The Supreme Court in 1973 used the “trimester” divisions of pregnancy, based on the earliest stage of “viability” then possible, but, according to Orthodox truth, “viability” has nothing to do with human personhood, or when human life begins.

The Orthodox Faith proclaims that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 9:6). Although the image of God in us has been made hard tosee because of sin, it is indelible. It cannot be lost (we are not Calvinists). We are unique and distinct from animals, angels, and all the created universe because God personally formed us in His likeness and breathed His Spirit in us. The child born severely deformed or retarded is created in the image and likeness of God just as we are, and to the same degree that we are. Our degree of biological development is irrelevant to the fact of our being created in God’s image. We affirm that life begins at conception.



Embryonic Stem Cell Research Kills

In the mid-90’s, Congress passed a law banning the use of tax dollars for research in which human embryos are harmed or killed. Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops explains what then happened, under the Clinton administration: “Based on a legal opinion by Health and Human Services attorney Marcy Wilder (former legal director of the National Abortion Rights Action League), the National Institutes of Health proposed funding research that uses stem cells from ‘spare’ embryos at fertility clinics.” The National Right to Life Committee responded to the Clinton administration’s averting the law: “If a law said no taxes may fund research in which porpoises are destroyed, and a federal agency then told its grantees to arrange for porpoises to be caught and killed for use in federally approved experiments, everyone would recognize this as illegal.” Detroit’s Roman Catholic Cardinal, Adam Maida, summarized, “By appropriating taxpayers’ money for such experiments with human life, our elected officials would make all of us unwitting partners along the way.”

“Harvesting” stem cells kills human embryos. Though the hope is to help people someday, if we harm others in the process, we have done wrong. The Church opposes embryonic stem cell research because there is no way, at least today, to take stem cells from human embryos — pre-born children — with-out killing them. Dr. J. Wilke of Life Issues Institute writes, “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t profess to be pro-life and support experimentation on these tiny children that will result in their deaths. As physicians we first pledge to do no harm. [Embryonic stem cell research] flies in the face of a doctor’s primary responsibility.”

Some say the possible benefits justify destructive embryonic stem cell research. This “noble use” argument is simple: the end justifies the means. But the intentional harm of a human being for the benefit of another is wrong. Stem cell research’s goal may be to heal, but count-less human beings have tobe killed first. Fr. Frank Pavone, Roman Catholic president of Priests For Life, explains, “This is not a debate about whether or not we should do research to assist the perennial fight against disease. The Church does not oppose research. But the task of research, the efforts to cure disease, and the ability to manipulate nature have certain moral parameters.” The 14,000-member Christian Medical Association states, “Defining the value of lives by how we use them is the grossest violation of human worth.”

Others, including President Bush, agree that killing humans for experimentation is wrong, but feel it should be allowed on embryos “already slated to die,” such as victims of abortion or “spare” human embryos frozen in fertility clinics. This is faulty thinking, since two wrongs don’t make a right. In cases of abortion, it is wrong to benefit from an immoral act. This is a universally accepted ethical principle. In cases of conceived human beings frozen in fertility clinics, again the Church opposes the killing of these little ones for experimentation. Human life is human life, whether conceived in the fallopian tubes or in a petri dish. Pro-life couples going through in-vitro fertilization can (and Orthodox faithful do) specify that no “extras” be conceived than will be implanted in the mother.

Deacon Dr. Mark Studebaker explains, “Each one is conceived with the hope that it will become implanted in the mother’s womb and survive, even though some often do not. This is no different than what happens in a natural setting through a couple with normal fertility.” Even in cases of non-Christian in-vitro fertilization where more embryos are conceived than implanted, “spare” embryos are not necessarily destroyed. Parents can preserve “excess” embryos for future pregnancies as well as donate them to other couples.

Kevin Fitzgerald of Georgetown University testified before Congress: “We do not consider it appropriate to take organs from dying patients or prisoners on death row before they have died in order to increase someone else’s chances for healing or cure. Neither, then, should we consider any embryos ‘spare’ so that we may destroy them for their stem cells.”

Albert Schweitzer once wrote, “If a man loses reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life.”

Even if there were a way to experiment on human embryos without killing them, such use of preborn children would, I believe, constitute abuse. Remember, according to Holy Tradition, we’re talking about people! It would be equal to experimenting on you or me, alive, and without our consent. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Joseph A. Fiorenza, describes destructive embryonic research as “treating some lives as nothing more than objects to be manipulated and destroyed for research purposes.” Attorney and consumer advocate Wesley J. Smith says it turns “human life (into) a mere natural resource … a crop to be harvested.”

Thanks be to God, there are stem cells useable for research from countless sources other than embryos, some of which are beginning to prove more valuable than embryonic stem cells.

Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cells

The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop) has pointed out that real, viable alternatives exist. Dr. David Prentice comments, “there are several excellent alternatives to embryos, and they are actually better potential sources of stem cells for numerous reasons. The best sources are from our own organs … Another excellent source is cord blood …” Indeed, Wesley J. Smith reports that stem cells from umbilical cord blood have restored the immune systems of children whose cancer had previously destroyed their abilities to fight infection and disease.

In England, research has shown adult stem cells can help stroke victims regain movement, senses and understanding. They also show that the adult cells were more effective than cells from aborted babies. The Institute of Psychiatry in London and a biotechnology company showed that transplanted adult stem cells made their way to whichever area of the damaged brain needed repair. The movement of adult stem cells to the damaged area of the brain differs from the behavior of fetal stem cells, which they say remain in one place when trans-planted.

Besides umbilical cord stem cells, there are many kinds of adult stem cells, all of which can be used in research without harming anyone, and which are already proven to have dramatic healing effects. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported that a young woman rendered paraplegic by a car accident can move her toes and legs after injection of her own immune-system cells into her severed spinal cord. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that several legally blind people can now see more clearly after their corneas were reconstructed with adult corneal stem cells. In the last year, adult neural stem cells have been converted into heart, liver, muscle and blood cells. The Associated Press concluded that such findings “may eliminate the ethical dilemma blocking stem-cell studies that use human fetal tissues.”

The National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke has confirmed that patients’ own bone marrow stem cells can be directed to generate nerve cells for brain repair. “The studies suggest that bone marrow may be a readily available source of neural cells with potential for treating such neurological disorders as Parkinson’s disease and traumatic brain injury … Bone marrow cells taken from a patient’s own body would not be rejected by the body’s immune system.” Use of bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged bone and cartilage is already in human clinical trials at Osiris Therapeutics in Baltimore and elsewhere.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports on successful efforts by Italian and Russian researchers to repair “large bone defects” using these cells. The Los Angeles Times has reported that The Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey found stem cells from adult bone marrow can convert into neurons quickly and can be grown in almost unlimited supply. Experiments prove these cells can be successfully transplanted into the spinal cord and brain, where they survive and connect to other neurons. The Washington Post published reports that bone marrow cells “might provide a nearly limit-less supply of replacement neurons for patients with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and spinal cord injuries.” There is also some evidence that adult stem cells may be easier “to manage” than embryonic and fetal stem cells.

Skin and fat have been discovered as other sources of stem cells, which could lead to cures for diabetes and other degenerative illnesses by providing new cells to replace damaged or dead ones.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia created bone cells out of stem cells harvested from abdominal fat. In another study, scientists grew cartilage cells from fat stem cells taken from liposuction samples.

The British Medical Journal reports that even people recently deceased can provide stem cells: “Early results suggest that ductal tissue taken from human cadavers can be grown in culture to form functioning (pancreatic) islet cells. Such a source of tissue … could prove better than relying on fetal tissue, and may even lead eventually to autologous pancreatic transplants.” The American Diabetes Association reports that fifteen people with juvenile diabetes became “insulin free” after adult pancreatic islet cell transplants; nine still need no insulin injections. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies grew neural cells from human tissue donated after death from people up to 72 years old.

The list of proven alternatives to embryonic stem cells goes on. Science columnist E. Marshall writes: “Once thought to be less versatile than (embryonic) stem cells because they have already made a commitment to become particular cell types, these (adult stem) cells are now turning out to have greater than expected capabilities. What’s more, they pose fewer ethical problems …”

Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics (http://www.stemcellresear...), has a wealth of articles about the alternatives to embryonic stem cells on their website, plus links to other sources.

Stem Cells from Embryos Have Problems

Embryo stem cells are beginning to prove more harmful than helpful. Wesley J. Smith explains, “Embryonic stem cells seem more active, but that may actually make them less desirable for use in human medical therapy since this aspect of their biology may be impossible to control and could lead to embryonic stem cell therapy causing tumors.”

Cybercast News Service reports that scientists in the United States have been injecting cells from aborted babies into the brains of Parkinson’s patients, but it was reported in early March that the experiment was being abandoned after “absolutely devastating” side-effects were observed. Lead re-searcher Dr. Helen Hodges concluded, “We expect that [adult] stem cells will prove far safer and more flexible for repair of brain damage than primary fetal cells.” The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York came to similar conclusions, as did the Institute for Stem Cell Research in Milan, Italy.

Embryonic stem cells are unstable, making them harder to manage. They can fail to differentiate into the needed cells, and can even cause harmful tumors. They can be rejected by the patient (who has to take drugs just to attempt accepting them), and they can transmit diseases. Michel Levesque, director of neuro-functional surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, confirms that using adult stem cells, “we don’t have to harvest 12 to 15 fetuses, we don’t have to give immunosuppressant therapy, and we don’t have to worry about viral disease transmission.”

It is obvious who benefits most from destructive embryonic stem cell experimentation. The market for cell lines and tissue cultures made nearly half a billion dollars for corporations worldwide in 1996 alone, and the market has since sky-rocketed. Fr. Andrew Morbey writes, “There is no need at all to use fetuses for stem cell research! So why use them? Who profits? Those with fetuses and fetal tissue certainly do. Abortion clinics and fertility clinics will make a bundle from the ‘by-products’ of their ‘services’ — probably even more than they make from abortions and in-vitro fertilization …”

Quindlen, an ardent pro-abortionist, argues that embryonic stem cell research should be tax-funded because it will change people’s attitude toward abortion.

Destructive embryo experimentation, she writes, “might bring a certain long-overdue relativism to discussions of abortion across the board …”

To Orthodox Christians, the issue is equally clear. We defend the life of pre-born children, from the earliest, smallest and most fragile stages of development. We oppose killing innocent human life for experimentation, or for any other reason. As citizens, we call upon our government to sponsor only research which does not harm human life, “research we all can live with.” As Orthodox faithful, alongside our holy Fathers, our Councils and our Holy Scriptures, we continue and maintain Holy Tradition unchanged, which affirms that the miracle of life begins at conception.

For information on advances in stem cell research that do not require killing human embryos, visit

Father Mark Hodges is pastor of St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church in Lima, OH.