Thursday, May 26, 2005

Reflecting on Sen. Gordon Smith's Mormon Theology of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

This week's debate about embryonic stem cell research has given me pause to reflect on when, 3 years ago, President Bush made his first decision about the subject. Of course, I felt his decision was too much of a compromise, seeing as how the existing stem-cell lines would eventually become insufficient, leaving demands for more lines years later. And not only that, that more Republicans, many of whom claim to be "pro-life", would be demanding funding for this research. That got me thinking about this article by Drew Clark, published in MSN Slate in 2001.

The Mormon Stem-Cell Choir

In the article, Clark basically outlines a Mormon theology of stem-cells by first noting, of course, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on embryonic stem-cell research, or when life begins, and other relevant topics in modern bioethics. But he then proceeds to give the moral and theological opinion of Sen. Gordon Smith and Orrin Hatch:
While pundits chatter on about the role of Catholic leaders in the stem-cell debate, the influence of Mormons (—members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) goes almost unnoticed. [Orrin] Hatch and [Gordon] Smith have become the leaders of a movement within the Republican Party to urge President Bush to fund embryonic stem-cell research. All five Mormon senators (the others are Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and Harry Reid, D-Nev.) have come out for such funding. They have helped move the debate away from right-to-life absolutism without sacrificing pro-life theology. The LDS Church, not the Vatican, is playing the pivotal role in the struggle over stem cells.
You'll see in a minute why this argument is absurd. Clark continues...
In an audience last week with Bush, Pope John Paul II restated the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and "related evils" such as euthanasia, infanticide, and the destruction of human embryos through stem-cell research. That statement drew upon the pope's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae and his 1987 encyclical, Donum Vitae (Gift of Life). Both documents elaborate on the Catholic position that life begins at conception, equating abortion and [embryonic] stem-cell research with murder... Leaders of the LDS Church have been far more circumspect about both subjects. The church released a statement of neutrality on stem-cell research in July. What the LDS Church didn't issue, —and what its statements on abortion similarly avoid, is any statement about when life begins, and hence whether embryos constitute human life.
It seems to me that without such a statement, the LDS Church is not able to engage the subject from a scholarly or theological level at all. As Clark goes on to note, the position is vague:
Rather than referring to the Biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill," the church's 1991 statement on abortion cited a scripture from The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations received by Joseph Smith, whom the church regards as its first prophet. The scripture reads, "Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it." The phrase "like unto it" suggests that while most abortions are sinful, they are not quite the same as murder.
This is where it gets strange. Such a vague statement, which seems deliberate, of course, leaves the door open for a wide array of interpretation. And so we get into the theology proposed by Sen. Smith, buttressed by his understanding of Mormon teaching.
Mormon doctrine holds that each person lived as a spirit child of God prior to being born and receiving a physical body on Earth. From this point of view, it makes no sense to say that life begins at conception. Instead, Mormons would say that life on earth begins when the spirit and body are united.
But why doesn't it make sense to say that? Of course, as Catholics, we reject the notion of the pre-existence of the soul, but why is it impossible to say that the soul, regardless of whether it pre-existed or whether it is created at that moment, joins the body at the moment of conception? Sen. Smith offers an alternative:
In his testimony, Sen. Smith made this very point. Without calling attention to his Mormon beliefs, he cited Genesis 2:7, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Smith went on to explain, "This allegory of creation describes a two-step process to life, one of the flesh, the other of the spirit." He compared stem cells to "the dust of the earth, —they are essential to life, but standing alone, will never constitute life." As Smith portrayed it, the onset of life, the union of spirit and body, takes place when the embryo is implanted in a womb.
Aha! At last.... but wha..? I think what Sen. Smith means to say is that human embryos, from which stem-cells are harvested, do not constitute life by themselves. That's quite a bold statement. Sen. Smith goes from that to say that the union of spirit and body must occur, not at conception, but at implantation. This line of reasoning seems like a stretch. Of course, given that we know that an embryo, which is formed at the instant of conception, is a distinct human organism with everything within itself necessary to develop into an adult human being, it makes no scientific or theological sense to argue that it is nothing at all until implantation. Yes, at implantation, the embryo will begin to receive nourishment and shelter, fueling its development, but nourishment and shelter do not define what the embryo is, ontologically speaking. So, even if Sen. Smith doesn't want to concede life at conception, why pick implantation as that moment? One could extend his argument to assert that the spirit doesn't join the body until some other arbitrary time... how about at birth? How about one month after birth? But, with Sen. Smith's line of reasoning, what happens if an embryo develops ex utero? If, in some distant future, we are able to develop a child outside of the womb, would that child then not have a soul because implantation never occured? It seems inconsistent.

Clark does mention the response of the Catholic Church to Sen. Smith's theology:
Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, later described Smith's theory as "amateur theology."
I have to agree. Sen. Smith's argument that life can only exist at implantation and never before, frankly, makes no sense to me, given what we know about embryonic development. It seems to me that the only consistent position is to argue that a distinct human life can only begin at conception... a human life that is in a constant stage of human development until its natural death.

After Slate published this article, I found myself involved in several discussions with a few members of the LDS Church who wholeheartedly supported Sen. Smith's theology, as reported by Drew Clark. Of course, as I mentioned, Sen. Smith does not represent the official position of the LDS Church, but it seems to be an opinion that is gaining support amongst its members and among "pro-life" Republicans.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails