What do you say to someone who prefers that real children die so that stem cells can live? Notes on Proposed Missouri Amendment 2

October 30, 2006 | By | 45 Replies More

An evangelical acquaintance recently wrote me a letter arguing that the pro-stem cell research proposal (Missouri Amendment 2) A) is geared to financially enrich its sponsors, B) that it will invite reproductive cloning and C) that poor women will result in poor women selling their eggs.  She urged me to oppose the Amendment and oppose various promising forms of stem cell research. 

For information on the proposed amendment, see here. 

Even before receiving this letter, I knew that my acquaintance believed that a one-minute old fertilized human egg in a Petri dish is a baby that deserved full legal protection and priority over the children with horrible illnesses who occupy hospital beds. My acquaintance indicated that she was part of an organized effort to defeat Missouri Amendment 2. 

I am not thrilled with my response (see below), but I couldn’t think of anything better.  If anyone has any ideas as to a more effective way to deal with those who oppose stem cell research on religious grounds, I’m all ears.

Dear [Acquaintance]

I realize that you feel hurt and attacked by my previous email.  In this e-mail, I will attempt to put our recent exchange of e-mail in perspective.

The technology for making insulin is currently based on recombinant DNA techniques; the human gene which codes for the insulin protein is cloned and then inserted in bacteria.  I want you to assume for a moment, though, that my religion holds that both the cloning of genes and recombinant DNA techniques are morally and spiritually repugnant.

Let’s assume further that one of your daughters has diabetes and she needs insulin in order to live (assume that insulin obtained through older methods—derived from pigs and cows–causes a dangerous reaction in your daughter and is the thus un-usable). 

Assume further that one fine day I proudly send you an e-mail announcing that I am sponsoring legislation across the entire state, legislation that will make artificial insulin illegal.  The legislation I am pushing will put your daughter’s health at great risk, but I have nonetheless inserted myself into your family’s most personal medical decision-making process. The legislation I am pushing will deny you medical treatment that has been saving your daughter’s life.  I forge ahead, though, because I am certain that God has sent me on this mission.  In other words, I am doing the equivalent of forcing my way into your house, raiding your medicine cabinet and throwing away your daughter’s insulin.  How would you feel if I did that under those circumstances?

Assume some additional background.  Assume that I have long claimed to be absolutely certain that I am correct regarding numerous aspects of morality based on my reading of my version of the Bible, which I repeatedly declare to be inerrant (that is, absolutely literally true), despite the fact that my Bible contains hundreds of statements that conflict with common sense and reality (for instance, the Bible claims that the mustard seed is the smallest seed when it is actually not the smallest seed).  Assume further that you know from talking with me that I refuse to question the highly-questionable origins of the Bible.  Further assume that I refuse to consider overwhelming evidence that several key stories in my English translation Bible conflict with the earliest known reliable manuscripts.

Assume further that my e-mail contains an attachment that disparages the lifetime dedication of medical professionals who have done laudable work developing new sources of insulin using medical techniques that, several decades earlier, were severely criticized by many religious conservatives. 

The above closely resembles what you have done to me by sending me an e-mail that proudly announces that you are attempting to fight the passage of Missouri Proposed Amendment 2, thereby narrowing the range of medical treatments available to people close to me, including my daughters. I would ask you: what kind of parent would you think I was if I did not severely question your knowledge and motives?  Now, I am extremely fortunate that my daughters are not stricken with a horrible disease.  But someday they might.  It that ever happens, I insist on having available every possible means of restoring their health.

I have a hard time believing that you have made the alleged financial greed of the Stowers family a centerpiece of your argument.  I would dare you to stand up in front of the world-class researchers of the Stowers Institute (see their photos here) and announce to them that they are a bunch of money-grubbing self-centered lackeys.  Same point for John Danforth and William Danforth.  Take a look at what these people have done for our community and the self-sacrifice involved in doing it, then ask your God and your self whether you are really sufficiently informed to cast the aspersions that you are casting.

Yes, I was angry when I read the baseless indictments in the attachment to your letter.  You know, I have often dealt with people who put their own hopes for Heaven ahead of the lives of real live human beings.  That was not the main reason I was angry this time.  What angered me was your blithe willingness to propagate slander toward venerable community leaders. Just because my tone was not “more gentle and respectful” does not mean that I wasn’t correct.  I would highly recommend that you do serious research into the characters and accomplishments of the people you have slandered before further impugning them.

You have attempted to further impugn William Danforth by referring to one of his letters that was published in Science.  The full text of his letter can be found here.  That letter recognizes the following undeniable facts:

Before implantation, [stem] cells can become any type of cell. If separated into two parts, they can yield two embryos; if cells from two different blastocysts are merged, they can result in a single embryo; if cells from two different blastocysts are merged, they can result in a single embryo.

You will not find a single early stem cell in a real baby.  Human embryonic stem cells are derived from fertilized embryos less than a week old. Early stem cells  (sometimes called “embryonic stem cells”) are thus long gone by the time any organs develop.  The clumps of early stem cells that can be used to research medical cures have no brain–not even a single neuron.  That is why I disagree with you that microscopic clumps of stem cells in Petri dishes are “babies.”  The belief that unimplanted stem cells constitute “a baby” can only be a religious belief.

You’ve repeatedly asserted that I just don’t “understand” many things.  I think I do understand the issues raised by your email.  If I sound “insulting” or “demeaning” or overconfident, it is because I base my entire worldview on periodically attacking my own most cherished beliefs.  I embrace the naturalistic method.  I work hard to frame my beliefs as testable working assumptions; they are always prone to being disapproved.  My beliefs that have survived have been repeatedly tested. 

On the other hand, I know that your most cherished beliefs are never questioned.  You’ve told me this.  The Bible is the word of God and that is that.  When we had lunch last year, you were surprised to hear that there were two versions of creation contained in Genesis.  You were surprised to learn that the New Testament contains two contradictory genealogies leading from David to Joseph. You urged me not to “dwell” on the genocidal God of the Old Testament despite your claim that the entire Bible was absolutely true.  This is the context of my frustration with the religious foundation for your political positions.  Can you blame me?

I attended two church services at your evangelical church in order to better understand why you and I see the things so differently.  Your spiritual leader told everyone in the church to trust only him.  He told the church-goers to read no books about Christianity but only to return for more lectures by him.  They were repeatedly told to not think for themselves.  [see here ] He threatened them with eternal torture of hell if they fell out of line.  In threatening them to self-censor, he thus restricted the flock’s access to neutral sources of information regarding Bible interpretation.  This is a tried and true method of brainwashing. If you think my tone could be more gentle or respectful, I challenge you to go back to your church and pay particular attention to the condescending tone of your spiritual leader.  I urge you to then get enough distance from your church to see it from a neutral perspective.

Ideas have consequences.  Your participation in the organized resistance to Amendment 2, if successful, will put horribly sick people at risk, many of them children.  But somehow, out of all of this, you characterize me as the ignorant and arrogant one.  I am the arrogant one even though I am the one who refuses to give up on developing all possible medical cures for all severely sick people. 

You have argued, contrary to all medical evidence, that a microscopic clump of undifferentiated cells in a Petri dish (without a single brain cell or heart cell) is more deserving of protection under the law than a 6-year-old girl stricken with leukemia, a walking, talking little girl fighting for her life. You are the one that is arguing that a microscopic clump of undifferentiated stem cells is more deserving of our care than a nine-year-old boy with third-degree burns over 60% of his body.  Or that that an acquaintance of mine must forever remain a quadriplegic, unable to lift a cracker to his own lips for the rest of his life.  Or that my friend [I’ll call him George here] must be denied any chance to regain some of the tissue he lost in a quadruple amputation resulting from meningitis that nearly killed him five years ago.

All of this must simply be so, in your view, so that a microscopic clump of un-implanted cells entirely lacking in neurons can live.  Or even worse, it must be so, in your view, that each of these victims must simply suffer and die so that a frozen embryo at a fertility clinic will be thrown away rather than donated to research to give hope to these tragic victims.

Love is sometimes not about communicating with a gentle tone.  Sometimes love is about shooting straight and letting other people know that you are concerned about them and their views. If you find my method of communicating too difficult, I sincerely recommend that you don’t write e-mails to me about your political positions.  I promise that I will not torment you in writing if don’t promulgate your political or religious views to me in writing.  If you do write to me, I will answer directly and honestly.   I might not always be correct, but I take every serious issue seriously.

If I didn’t care about what you wrote or thought, I would not have taken the time to write my previous e-mail, or this one.

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Category: American Culture, Health, Meaning of Life, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Reproductive Rights

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (45)

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  1. Joy says:

    Wow, a lot of thought went into your letter. I appreciate your openness and sensitivity to the issues. The fact that you visited this evangelical church twice is amazing, and must have given you a lot of insight into their perspective. It seems to me that dispite your efforts at meaningful dialogue, there is no way to bridge the gap between the two views – one is open to discussion and questioning of beliefs, the other hides behind "absolute truths" that defy questioning. You're wasting your time and energy trying to crack into that logic.

  2. Catana says:

    The only reasonable response to that person has to be very short and in words of two syllables or less. Anything else is a waste of your time because they probably can't read very well, and wouldn't recognize an analogy if it slapped them across the face.

  3. Rayilyn Brown says:

    I think these people see reason as a threat to their faith which they will cling to no matter what. Religion can put people in a box they can't get out of when ANYTHING threatens it. I thought we were living in an age of science, not faith, but I am wrong. It just surprises me that after progressing so much, we are being forced into darkness.

  4. Chris says:

    Even with the length and sentimentality of your response I think you fail to address one of the core arguments of any moral aversion to stem cells research. Granted, to trade ideas with any sort of fundamentalist is almost pointless, but plenty of people have moral objections to stem cell research that goes beyond the “Bible says so”. You should address the slippery slope argument. Nazi’s experimented on Jews because they “were not fully human” and we now have technologies developed and used based on that research. I’m not comparing the two methods of research but the moral argument is what you need to address. Could you heel your sick daughter with the technology gained by hurting another? This of course leads back to the question of whether a cluster of cells IS a baby. Central to any moral objection is that the cells COULD be a baby not necessarily that it IS and nowhere did you address that fact. No other cluster of cells COULD be a baby. We were all a cluster of cells at one time, and looking back I am glad my cluster matured into me, and as nice as your children might be I am not willing to sacrifice my cluster to save them…I would rather exist.

  5. Josh says:

    Definitely a good letter. You put a lot of thought and effort into this, and I commend you. As a medical researcher, I have a suggestion for an argument you may want to use in the future. The embryonic stem cells that would be used come from embryos made via in vitro fertilization. All the embryos that are not implanted in the mother are simply thrown away. So the two choices are A) use these embryos for stem cell research or B) throw them in the trash. Which shows more respect for "human life"? If the fundamentalists knew this perhaps they would be more willing to support the research. That or they will just try to ban in vitro fertilization….

  6. Daniel says:

    What a thoughtful letter. It pleases me when someone says what I think and what I feel but cannot put in words. It bothers me that I cannot debate things such as your evangelical correspondant says but now I feel there are thoughtful people who can. "What do you say to someone who prefers that real children die so that stem cells can live?" is a masterly statement.

  7. Nick says:

    I have to say that you did an excellent job both writing and researching this article. I find it odd that someone would worry about a "cluster of cells" that could NOT have become a baby. There is simply no way to make a jump from Nazi’s to stem cell research. I was glad to see Josh's response and hope more people understand this issue. Thanks for the great article.

  8. Chris S. says:

    I think one way to change someone's mind is to give them a new way to think about the issue. Earlier this week in Kansas City, a 15 month old girl was severly injured by being shaken and thrown by her frustrated baby sitter. The girl was pronounced dead on a Wednesdday night, but her body was kept alive by machines until Thursday afternoon so that her organs could be transplanted. No one complained about it, and people probably felt some relief that she could give to others. As Josh said, blastocysts are simply discarded as part of the IVF process. So instead of calling it stem cell research, call it "pre-embryonic stem cell donation". That way, the blastocyst going into the garbage has a way to give something to humanity.

  9. Henry says:

    The point that noone seems to make, which to me seems like it would answer any criticm, is that stem cells used for research are gleaned from cells marked for disposal as medical waste. If they weren't used for research, they would simply be discarded – no stem cells are harvested for the sole purpose of research.

  10. Henry says:

    Given that, I feel any assertion that stem cell research in any way requires a trade-off in human life is at best prevarication, at worst instigation. God doesn't like liars.

  11. Kingkong says:

    The best, most reasonable response I have ever read!

  12. Jed says:

    Great, but too many words. Cut it down, get to the point.

    "real children die so stem cells can live" seems to be the kernel of the argument here.

  13. Henry says:

    Which is, as I pointed out, is absolutely incorrect, and thus an invalid basis for argument. As further clarification, stem cells used for research are extracted from embryos (which are defined simply as fertilized eggs, no more, no less) that have been marked as medical waste. But I suppose such a disntinction means little to one who would ignore facts and instead fall back to a morality based defense, which unfortunately seems to be fairly representative of those who oppose this type of research.

  14. Chris says:

    I think the argument that “they were going to be disposed of anyway” is extremely weak. Again, I’m not comparing the gravity of the two only the moral argument, but it could be said that the Jews faced either experimentation that might ultimately benefit humanity or disposal in a gas chamber. So the crux of your argument is if they were going to die anyway why not get some use out of them. My response would be that they should not die at all.

  15. Henry says:

    OK last post I promise, but I wanted to clear one more thing up, if only to help myself understand my own position. If one's aim is to safeguard embryos, an argument against procedures that produce these embryos in the first place would at least have some valid basis.

    Furthermore, if in fact one's aim is to protect stem cells specifically, then stem cell research actually saves the cells from destruction, since, again, they are contained in embryos that would be disposed of in any other case, and the very goal of the research is to propagate the cells.

  16. Chris says:

    I think Chris S’s. comment gets at the heart of the issue which is something everyone seems to avoid: We deem some forms of life more valuable then others. Any argument for stem cell research has to use it. A brain dead child can donate organs and most people say ok, what about a convicted murderer on death row? Can we harvest his organs before he dies? What about just his kidney? Why let an innocent little boy die somewhere when a despicable human being wastes his organs? I don’t feel qualified to make moral judgments like that and prefer to error on the side of individual liberty. One important thing I would note in Chris’s story is that, presumably, the person responsible for the death of the shaken child will face criminal charges for killing something that was alive. To Henry’s snide remark that “God doesn’t like liars” I think it is presumptuous for anyone to assume what a god likes or doesn’t and I am an Atheist “at worst” and an Agnostic “at best” so I really don’t care.

  17. Henry says:

    Both Chris and Chris S., sadly and predictably, ignore the actual facts presented and instead get personal and tangential. Embryos from which stem cells are extracted ARE disposed of ANYWAY. I made no expression of judgement of wrong or right on this point, or on any other for that matter, except for on the point of being honest. Characterizing that as snide is troubling, although I did word it to highlight that if you are going to use morality as your basis, be complete. To Chris S., although your use of the concept of "death" as applied to adult humans and week old embryos is clearly instigatory, regardless of what you believe. Aside from that, as I said, if your concern is the survival of the embryo, then work for change in the processes that produce embryos. Banning stem cell research will not stop it, and as I pointed out, ironically is the best hope for the "survival" of any stem cells contained within those embryos. Both of you are guilty of extrapolating – baselessly – from embryo to Jew or convicted felon. Any reasonable, honest person who read my post would agree, and despite my most careful, explicit wording and qualification, you two STILL decide to just stumble through the same, false and instigatory rhetoric. If you have a point, make sense. If you want to attck, make sense. Right now neither of you do.

  18. Henry says:

    One more thing to Chris – harvesting organs from humans has NOTHING to do with stem cell research. That you would bring it up in the context of this argument is a clear indicator that you are not very well acquainted with the subject matter. So I concede that I was wrong earlier, since the actual best case scenario for someone who holds your position would be ignorance, not prevarication. And that is not a personal dig for the record, just an honest observation.

  19. Henry says:

    Also to Chris, I try not to presume anything about God's likes or dislikes. This story is about an evangelical Christian's position. As such I refer you to Commandment 9 (or 8 if you're Catholic) as described by the Christian bible. God doesn't like liars. If you disagree, take it up with your local theologan, not me. And based on your verbage and overall tone, I don't believe that you are agnostic or atheist. I believe you say that only in an attempt to add validity to your statements.

  20. Henry says:

    Sorry Chris S. – all above references to you in my postings should instead go to Chris. My mistake.

  21. Chris says:

    “although your use of the concept of “death” as applied to adult humans and week old embryos is clearly instigatory”-Henry

    “instigatory” is not a word but get what you are trying to say. My concept of “death” is something that was once alive and no longer is. I apply that concept to humans, little human cells, flowers and the fish I eat. I’m not aware of any other interpretation of death but I am open to the possibility.

    I think you might want to reread the posts because Chris S was arguing with you, only I am arguing against.

    Your point about the cells “survival” if used for research is an interesting one. It seems like a pragmatic response to the situation but not necessarily an ideal.

    So anyone who disagrees with you is neither reasonable nor honest? You sound as bad as the fundamentalist. How do you hope to solve problems without dialogue? How do suppose we have a dialogue if anyone who disagrees is just not being honest? You might as well say “if you disagree god will send you to hell.” Same result.

  22. grumpypilgrim says:

    To Erich's post:

    Wow, I have such a hard time understanding people who oppose stem cell research. The issue is not about when human life "begins" — people could debate that subject all day long and still never resolve it — the issue is whether the parents of a lump of undifferentiated human cells should be permitted to donate that cell mass for medical research in lieu of simply discarding it. The situation is analogous to that of organ donation: the parents of a brain-dead child should be able to donate that child's organs to help relieve the suffering of sick people in lieu of simply letting the child die and then burying the child's body. The two situations are nearly identical: neither the lump of undifferentiated human cells nor the brain-dead child will ever become a conscious person, so why shouldn't the parents get to decide what to do and why shouldn't they have the option of doing something that is unquestionably pro-life — donating the cell mass to save others — rather than requiring them to do something that involves only the death of that cell mass? It makes no sense to me at all for people who call themselves "pro-life" to oppose the only life-giving option that exists.

    What does make sense to me, however, is the power of a church to regulate the behaviors and beliefs of its members. If church members (such as your acquaintance) were to openly support stem cell research, or even fail to oppose it, they would risk the condemnation of both their spiritual leader and their friends in the congregation. I believe the fear of THAT is what motivates them to so vigorously support such nonsensical, anti-life legislation. It is primarily their concern for THEMSELVES that motivate them to oppose stem cell research, not their concern for those cell masses. If they were truly concerned with saving the "lives" of those cell masses, then why don't they adopt them and donate their own wombs to turn them into children?

    Evangelicals are fond of proclaiming themselves to be the standard-bearers of family values, but where is the "family value" in supporting legislation that allows politicians, not parents, to decide the fate of unborn human cells? Shouldn't the parents — who might already be torturing themselves with the thought of just discarding those cell masses — be allowed the option to do something positive and pro-life by donating those cell masses to research that might someday save the lives of millions of people?

    Bottom line: trying to ban stem cell research is as morally contemptible as trying to ban organ donation.

  23. Henry says:

    Chris, this is so tiresome, and folks like you make it so difficult to engage in productive and rational debate. A quick change in stance to sounding reasonable and attempting to turn the tables on me is… I don't know, lazy more than anything. I actually am an atheist, and I really do believe death is the same for all organisms (in that we are all cast into oblivion), including us humans. But I do make the distinction between developed organisms and simple organisms insofar as significance. Otherwise I would be consumed with guilt every time I used mouthwash. Note that stem cells are merely a components of an organsim. Also, yes I do believe that someone who equates extracting stem cells from a week-old embryo to exterminating Jews is completely unreasonable. Quoting me out of context and applying my assertions to organ donation is dishonest. But no, merely disagreeing with me is not an indication of a dishonest or unreasonable person. "Instigatory" is a word, though the usage is archaic. Just checked my OED, suggest you do the same. And you just couldn't resist ending your post with an "instigatory"remark I see, one that paints me as unreasonable. It's as if there is a fundamentalist posting guide out there or something.

  24. Erich Vieth says:

    The stem cell issue is serving well as a wedge issue, according to salon.com. With regard to the recent stem cell commercial featuring Michael J. Fox, the article states the following:

    Fox's first commercial, which boosts the Senate candidacy of Claire McCaskill in Missouri, began airing Oct. 21. A survey by HCD Research, a marketing firm that was one of the first to notice the impact of the Swift Boat ads on the 2004 presidential race, showed that after viewing the ad, those who considered themselves independents became 10 percent more likely to vote Democratic. Republicans, too, were profoundly affected by the ad: After seeing it, 10 percent of those who identified themselves as Republican reported that they would now vote for a Democratic or independent candidate.

  25. Chris says:

    I have never had anyone tell me that my tone dictates my most personal beliefs (or lack thereof.) I find your remark somewhat prejudiced, can’t an atheist take a moral stance on something or is their some code that says an atheist must disagree with everything a Crazy Christian believes? Likewise is a religious person barred from sharing a view with a secular neighbor? Also how have I made it hard to engage in rational debate isn’t that what we have been doing? I haven’t called you any names, made fun of your opinions, or tried to belittle you in any way. We happen to have a difference of opinion and I am trying to understand yours.

    I don’t know how else to say this but I have never equated exterminating on Jews to extracting stem cells. I compared the moral arguments used to justify each. Nazi’s saw the Jews as less then fully human therefore they felt morally justified in what they did, like experimenting on an animal. The core argument of stem cell research is that the cluster of cells is not fully human therefore we are justified in experimenting with them. I am not equating the net moral result just the arguments used to justify each. I don’t see that as unreasonable. If I had said extracting stem cells is AS BAD as the Nazi’s killing Jews I could see your point.

    Just for fun let’s pose a hypothetical. I see technology progressing very soon to the point where we won’t need a mother’s womb to have a child; we could just grow them in a lab. Without debating the ethics involved with that would it make you change your stance on stem cells? Now every single one of those fertilized eggs has the possibility of growing into a fully functioning human, can we still use them for research or would we be morally bound to grow them? I don’t see this as a religious debate but one that is needed to set the boundaries of society. I find it similar to the debate about donating body parts for money, I don’t think issues of god are involved as much as human ethical issues.

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