Over four hundred years ago, Rabelais prophetically stated, "Science without conscience is but death of the soul."

     The recent successful cloning of a sheep and successful stem-cell transplantations have heightened ethical concerns. Cloning and stem-cell harvesting challenge our understanding of the very nature of humanness. The DNA code has been cracked, and Christians must understand the implications.

   Dr. Frank Young served as Director of the National Disaster Medical System prior to his appointment as Vice President of RTS, Washington/Baltimore. On August 10, the day after President Bush announced his decision regarding stem cell research, Young was interviewed on CNN "Burden of Proof" concerning the future implications of embryonic stem cell research. On October 5, Young appeared on a CNN Special Report discussing the war against terrorism. On October 10, he testified before Congress regarding "Federal Bioterrorism Preparedness Programs from a Public Health Perspective."

      With Christmas upon us, consider this horrid sci-fi specter: What if this technology had been available to King Herod? What if he could have eliminated the Christ child by genetic manipulation?

      Celebrating the birth of our Savior this Christmas ought to renew our commitment to protect the lives of those who are unborn. Like the first wise men, we must protect endangered children from those who seek their destruction.


     As of late, the most prominent ethical and practical debates among scientists, theologians, and concerned, informed Christians regard recombinant DNA (rDNA), which is DNA that can be reproduced countless times for use in researching cures for serious diseases. It is this same DNA that can be used for cloning.

     It is not so much rDNA that is in question, but rather how it is to be handled. Most recently, this has been highlighted in the debate over stem-cell research. Stem cells, or undifferentiated human cells, have amazing abilities to adapt and change into other forms of issue. These cells are plentiful in embryos and fetuses; consequently, some scientists hope to harvest stem cells from the unborn.

     The great debate is this: Should scientists be allowed to (1) harvest these stem cells from naturally deceased embryos for use in research, and/or (2) create embryos by artificial insemination and then kill these man-made babies to harvest their stem cells to extract DNA? While the answer might seem easily an emphatic no, this becomes less clear among some ethicists, both Christian and non-Christian, when they consider the tremendous potential for healing that these stem cells could provide for those suffering from terminal illnesses. It is very likely that, with time, such stem-cell research could provide a cure for horrible diseases.


     The Christian believes that God created the universe, the earth and all that is therein. Man and woman are created in God's image. Genesis 1:28 teaches us that, following God's blessing, he said, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over every living thing." God is Creator and Redeemer and our Savior. Salvation is not through science. Rather as redeemed image bearers we are to have dominion over science.

     The Christian worldview contends that the Bible holds the truths necessary for life even many centuries after the close of the canon of Scripture. Molecular genetics, cloning, and embryo manipulation were not taught in Scripture, but there are abundant principles that enable us to address these issues.

  • God is Creator and sustainer of the universe. While there may be different opinions about the mechanism, the role of Creator is a fundamental belief.
  • Human beings are creatures created in God's image and function as stewards of God's creation, not as co-creators.
  • Because humans are created in God's image, human life is sacred.
  • Sin abounds, and human beings are conflicted, often doing what they know they should not, and do not wish to, do.
  • Our devotion should be first and foremost to God, but we have responsibilities as well to governments - and God ordains government as a form of social order.
  • We Christians recognize that our views will be a minority view in society, yet one that must be enunciated clearly and through the channels that are available to us.
  • Life on earth is finite. It is appointed for man once to die. Therefore, an important part of our temporal life involves preparing for eternity.
  • Part of dominion is the ministry of healing and the relief of suffering. Yet it must be remembered that the great Physician, Jesus, did not heal all people, but divine healing was a manifestation of his powers as the Son of God.

     Recognizing our primary allegiance to God, we therefore should engage in the struggle to bring biblical truths to bear on contemporary decisions.


     Theological and ethical guidance. The use of stem cells harvested from embryos raises great ethical and theological concerns. There are a number of biblical principles that can be used to address this decision from a Christian perspective.

     First, because the embryo is alive at the time the stem cells are harvested, the harvesting results in death and violates the sixth commandment (Exod. 20:13). Second, the embryo as a living entity bears the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Third, the violation of image bearer is an act of violence against the Creator (Gen. 9:6). Fourth, human beings are given unique responsibilities (Psalm 8). Finally, Jeremiah clearly states that God knew the prophet before he was formed (Jer. 1:5).

     Reformed theologian A.A. Hoekema noted that Genesis 1 :26-28 describes a threefold relationship between God and man. First, humans are directed toward God and are completely dependent on him. Second, human beings are to be directed toward their fellow man as exemplified by God creating a "suitable helper" as described in Genesis 2:18. Third, humans are stewards over nature; that is, to subdue and to have dominion over God's creation.

     Thus, human beings have a special relationship to God and to creation. While the Fall distorted this relationship, it did not destroy the love of God for his creation. Therefore, the respect for the sanctity of human life is an overarching principle. However, the gift of eternal life with God looms much larger, as it is the grace of God. The brevity of temporal life, which certainly will end in death, is overshadowed by this glorious thought.

     The treatment of living human embryos as mere objects of experimentation to extend another's life raises the specter of birthing human embryos for spare parts.

     Medical guidance: A guiding principal here is "Do no harm." In medicine and in Scripture, the concept of doing no harm is clearly enunciated. In fact, the Christian worldview has encouraged medical research throughout the centuries. Since adult stem cells can be used to meet most of the objectives of basic and clinical research, why should embryos unnecessarily be sacrificed for experimentation? To counter this argument, some have suggested that these are spare embryos that would otherwise be destroyed; therefore, the research is merely salvaging something from an otherwise destroyed life. Perhaps regulation of the number of embryos produced and guidelines for adoption of frozen embryos could resolve this apparent excess.

     Legal protection: Murder of a pregnant woman with an embryo less than one month old is considered by law in some jurisdictions to be a double homicide. Some states have laws that specifically protect the embryo. Additionally, since the embryo is outside the uterus, Roe v. Wade should not apply. Finally, since 1993 the Congress has prohibited embryo research.


     What are the levers and knobs of government that can be utilized to influence the formation of policy?

     First, and most important, be sure that you understand the scientific, ethical, and theological issues. Pray and study Scripture before embarking on a course of action. There are a number of ways to be informed. In addition to Christian books and journals, visit the website of the National Library of Medicine (rq.nlm.nih.gov). Under the section on Health Information, it is possible to access abstracts from 4,300 biomedical journals. The National Institutes of Health houses the Human Genome Project. This website (rq.nih.gov) includes information on ethical, legal, and social issues as well as scientific information. Information about bills in Congress can be obtained through the website thomas.loc.gov.

     Second, correspond with lawmakers at the local, state, and federal levels on particular bills and subjects. At the federal level, these opinions are usually shared with the Administration. If your congressman or senator is a sponsor of a bill that affects one of your concerns, correspond with that person; if possible, visit the local office of your representative. Phone calls and telegrams are also effective. Individual, thoughtful letters are much more influential than a name on a petition or a postcard response that is part of an organized campaign.

     Third, become familiar with the way the presidential administration's decision-making processes work. For example, the Food and Drug Administration makes rules through a process of steps. First, there is usually a Notice of Proposed Rule Making. After comments are received and incorporated, the second step is the Proposed Rule, and after comments are considered, a Final Rule is promulgated.

     Because each of these steps permits public comment there is ample opportunity for input, and, by regulation, each comment must be considered. Surprisingly, the publics in general, and the Christian community in particular, make few comments. Perhaps this relates to ignorance about the decision-making procedures. One of the best sites from which to get information is the Website of the Government Printing Office (rq.gpo.gov); it lists various document resources, such as the Federal Register, the publication that records all federal regulations and guidelines.

     Finally, qualified Christians should engage fully in research in genetics, embryology, molecular biology, and immunology, where many of these controversial discoveries will be made. It is imperative to develop a generation of Christians in science who can address with expertise both the scientific issues and a Christian worldview. To do less will leave us out of the most central discussions.


     The Lord has given us minds that respond to his call. We must be armed intellectually to engage in the ethical and theological battles of the day. Christian scientific apologetics are needed in the twenty-first century. The battle is nigh.

     We fight for those unborn to whom, like the Christ child, the heavenly Father gave life, The fight is for those who, though in lesser ways than our Savior, have or will be conceived with God's great plan innate in them-both genetically and spiritually.

     Scientific and technological advances are occurring at an unanticipated rate. Fewer than fifty years ago the structure of DNA was unknown. We are on the threshold of manipulating human life. The actions taken in the next few years on research with human embryos will, in large measure, define our view of human nature. Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has much to offer. It provides a framework of truth that is not present in the empiricism of science.

     Like the wise men of old, who protected the Christ child from harm at Herod's hand, we can ill afford to be silent. We must act, and act wisely.

Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 4
© 2001 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 1-10-02.