Until recently I had the good fortune to be a member of Matt Evans’ Elder’s Quorum class. Matt asked me a question once that I couldn’t answer, and still can’t. I’m hoping T&S can help (and I hope Matt doesn’t mind!)
Here’s the story. Matt told me he had a friend who had mentioned the Church’s official stand on stem cell research:
“While the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have not taken a position at this time on the newly emerging field of stem cell research, it merits cautious scrutiny. The proclaimed potential to provide cures or treatments for many serious diseases needs careful and continuing study by conscientious, qualified investigators. As with any emerging new technology, there are concerns that must be addressed. Scientific and religious viewpoints both demand that strict moral and ethical guidelines be followed.”
In other words, the Church is basically neutral. The friend noted that stem cell research is potentially one of the most difficult and important moral issues of our time. If the prophet can’t give us more certain guidance on an issue like this, then what exactly is his calling?
I couldn’t come up with a good answer to that question then, and I still can’t. As I recall my best shot was that perhaps God expected us, as part of “being anxiously engaged in a good cause”, to partially define our own moral code. But that doesn’t really answer the question. Does anyone have a better answer? Note that the question is not whether stem cell research is good or bad; it’s what the purpose of the prophet is regarding a difficult moral issue.
For those who haven’t been paying attention, here’s a quick primer on stem cells. A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell; in other words, it is the most basic kind of cell and has the theoretical ability to turn into any type of cell in the body — a nerve cell, a heart muscle cell, bone, and so on. In theory, a doctor could use stem cells to grow a custom kidney for transplant. Stem cells may be able to cure diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and any number of degenerative diseases including muscular dystrophy and Parkinsons. So far so good. The moral issue is that the best source for stem cells is a fertilized egg. The egg is allowed to divide briefly and then its cells, which at this point are stem cells, are harvested. As a consequence gathering embryonic stem cells is uncomfortably close to — some would say identical to — abortion. There are other sources of stem cells which don’t have the same moral difficulties, but it is not clear that stem cells from those sources are as versatile. The issue is further muddied by the fact that, at least initially, researchers want to take stem cells primarily from “extra” fertilized eggs that are generated as a result of assisted fertilization. Usually during an assisted fertilization, several eggs are fertilized but not all of them are implanted. The rest are frozen, and are usually never used, and over time degenerate. Supporters of stem cell research argue that using these cells for a beneficial purpose is better than just allowing them to die. Detractors say that there’s a big difference between keeping an egg frozen and intentionally destroying it.