Obama, Stem Cell Research, and Orthodox Christianity

Earlier this week, President Obama issued an Executive Order repealing President Bush’s August 2001 restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This was no surprise, especially since, as Senator, he voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which was vetoed by President Bush.

While, the issues surrounding the creation and use of embryonic stem cells remain substantially the same, this change in political policy affords us another opportunity to reflect on how we, as Orthodox Christians, might approach this topic in the context of the public controversy.

There is no doubt that there has been a simmering resentment in the scientific community over these restrictions (spurred on in part by more general funding cuts for the National Institutes of Health). Obama gave voice to this during his campaign when he charged the Bush administration with “handcuffing” scientific progress.

There is also no doubt in my mind that researchers themselves are most competent to determine the value of this research vis à vis other methods, such as the recent breakthrough announced by Dr. Andras Nagy on March 1st about a new method to develop “pluripotent” stem cells that does not require the destruction of embryos.

This should not stop us, however, from making the case that scientific research also implies a tremendous responsibility to recognize moral boundaries, and must be held accountable.

Unfortunately, with a sustained positive spin in the media, public opinion is shifting. According to many polls, a strong majority of Americans support the lifting of President Bush’s restrictions.

We should remember that President Bush’s injunction had only prohibited the use of federal funds—tax-payer money—for research built on a fresh destruction of human life. That’s why, in 2004, California’s Proposition 71 was able to pledge $3 billion of state money for embryonic stem cell research. Privately funded research was never restricted in this way.

Federal funding is the major source of research dollars, however, and part of Bush’s strategy was to push researchers toward the kind of breakthroughs that Dr. Nagy reported. Likewise, Bush wanted to respect the conflicted consciences of millions of tax-payers who equated this type of research with murder.

While the Republican Party has a better record from this standpoint, and has for years been a more friendly place for those who oppose the destruction of nascent human life, Senator McCain still wanted to lift restrictions on using excess embryos created from In Vitro Fertilization procedures.

This is no small issue. In 2003, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) released a report estimating that more than 400,000 human embryos were sitting in freezers in the United States. We can easily imagine that there are many more today, as the popularity of IVF has grown.

And the numbers aren’t static. These aren’t the same embryos from year to year. In 2007, the London Times reported that more than 1 million embryos created for fertility treatment in British clinics have been destroyed over the past 14 years.

So where does this leave us?

First, as we are getting ready for our liturgical celebration of the Conception of Christ, the Annunciation, exactly nine months before the commemoration of his birth, we should recognize that oppositon to abortion—the destruction of human embryos—is one of the most ancient, universal, and well-established moral teachings of our faith.

As early as the first century, the Didache recognized that the practice of abortion was something that distinguished Christians from pagans, exhorting “do not murder a child by abortion.” St. Basil the Great, in the 4th century, stated clearly that “the distinction between what is formed and unformed” is inadmissible for Christians. These are only two small references to what is indeed “a great cloud of witnesses” in the Orthodox tradition.

What about the millions of “extra” embryos?

The moral principle here is simple. Immanuel Kant said it well: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” We have made these embryos a means to an end — the promise of better health, miracle cures, and scientific knowledge.

Rather than seek to benefit from their destruction, we should strive to end the practice of In Vitro Fertilization, which causes this problem in the first place.

We should be greatly disturbed by the facts. There is a deep shadow in our country, and we cannot avoid the truth that we are witnessing a tremendous holocaust of human life.

At the very least, we need to stand firmly with those who oppose these things, even with all the negative media heaped on President Bush, Pope Benedict XVI and others. We may be unpopular, maligned and misunderstood, and it may be that we are fighting a losing battle—but that is no excuse.

I am reminded of the words of Psalm 123 (122 in the Septuagint) that we sing at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during Great Lent: “Our eyes wait upon the Lord our God… Our soul is exceedingly filled with the scorning of those that are at ease, and with the contempt of the proud.”

If nothing else, we must remain faithful as witnesses to the teaching that God has given us, as a sign of God’s love in the current age. Orthodox Christians have well learned over the centuries that the worst that can happen to us in our stand for the dignity of human life is martyrdom.


  1. Roger Wm. Bennett :

    You are surely correct that the principled way out of this dilemma is to cease in vitro fertilization of human ova. Too often, “conservative” people talk almost as if keeping all embryos frozen and technically alive is the solution.

    But public opinion may be against us on IVF even more than on destructive ESCR. Indeed, I am unaware of any teaching that deters infertile Orthodox couples from “solving” their problem through IVF, and I suspect that more than a few such couples thus have become complicit in creating the dilemma.

    Having been keenly interested in these issues since my Protestant days, I remain struck at the paradox: the Latin Church surely over-analyzes mysteries, but its teaching on the error of separating procreation from vaginal intercourse of husband and wife, over-analyzed or not, is helpful, and I cannot help but resort to Latin encyclicals when I ponder these issues.

  2. Michael Bauman :

    Mr. Bennett,

    If one is looking for specific rule for IVF, it won’t be found. Rather we need to look to and understand how the Church views human beings in toto and the nature of our inter-relationship with God. We are created in the image and likeness of God to be stewards over His creation. We are to dress and keep the earth. We are to participate in the salvific process for ourselves and all else God has made.

    If one reads and ponders the bethrothal and marriage sacrament of the Church, it becomes much clearer that children are a blessing from God that flows from the blessing of the union between husband and wife. The marriage is part of the salvific work of Jesus through the Church–in community, not just for ourselves. Certainly it is not something we do, but as I said, something we participate in. Children are His gift to us (the parents and the community), but we pray for them as we do all blessings from Our Lord, we do not look upon them as a right, as a commondity to be purchased from the nearest purveyor so that we can satisfy our own longings and desires. The cheapening of human life involved, the desacralization of marriage and the gift of children by resorting to IVF is the result. It is impossible for me to believe that Joachim and Anna would have resorted to taking the matter out of God’s hands and taking it in their own. What do you think?

    IVF is similar to the sin in the Garden. Because the apple looked good to eat, Eve ate. Because his mate urged him to eat, Adam ate. Then both denied their responsibility and blamed God. Remember also that one of the consequences of that sin was that women would bear children in pain and be subject to their husbands. IVF is a end run, without repentance, around the thorns in the flesh our original disobedience caused us.

    The Church does not need specific teachings because everything about the life of the Church shouts loudly against such practice. We just have to open our ears and listen.

  3. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Roger, the Catholics have done better thinking on these issues than the Orthodox, although remember that Orthodoxy is only recently getting back in to the discussion after the fall of Communism and the Ottoman occupation. We have some serious catching up to do. I think too, that we will find much common ground with the Catholics, although I think Orthodoxy has a lot to offer in the area of anthropology, the penetration into what it means to be human.

    Fr. John Schroedel, the author of the post above is one such Orthodox scholar. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Bioethics. You will be hearing more from him in the future. You might also appreciate the work of H. Tristam Englehardt, also Orthodox.

    On another topic, parents who experience difficulty in conceiving a child have recourse through special prayers. They work.

  4. We have made these embryos a means to an end — the promise of better health, miracle cures, and scientific knowledge.

    It does not seem quite right … destroying life for a a better life? Are some lives are more important than others… Playing God? This is a dangerous game! Stem cell research is presented as a something that is truly necessary. It is necessary but not for what is quoted above.

    When Darwin “discovered” that God does not exist many were exceedingly glad : everything is permitted, let us have fun of this or the other variety! “Have fun!” became a greeting.

    After living like this something unexpected happened. More than ever before, people started to get depressed. They do not realize why, they do not know that they are longing for God.

    Why live if there is nothing after death? How to live if I know that after we dye we won’t ever again see the peole we love: parents, children, friends, spouses? These sensibile people sink into depression and great suffering. Got to promise something to them! What about a long life, maybe a never ending life here on Earth? Truly Satanic!

    This makes me think of what Christ said:

    But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye shut the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye enter not in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering in to enter. (Matthew 23:13)

  5. Where is the GOA Office of Church and Society? This week was an extremely active week with the Obama Administration’s executive order allowing human beings to be experimented on.

    This would have been a unique opportunity for Bishop Savas and Office to do some educating on when human life begins and when human rights begin. However, there were no statements, articles, press releases on this subject. The GOA youth email did not cover the subject and the weekly GOA email did not either.

    Can the new director of the Office of Church and Society answer the question “When do Human Beings Get Human Rights?”

    Is the Office of Church and Society for Real or is the hard earned money of Greek Orthodox Christians simply paying for a Bishop to Blog and talk about video games?

  6. Michael Bauman :

    On another topic, parents who experience difficulty in conceiving a child have recourse through special prayers. They work.

    Yes they do! My son proves it. As my priest told me, Mary seems to take special delight in such requests.

  7. Wesley J. Smith :

    It is also worth noting, at least from a public policy perspective, that making extra embryos is not a necessity. Italy only permits 3 embryos to be made at a time in IVF treatments, and requires that all so made be implanted. Hence, no hundreds of thousands of embryos in the deep freeze as a temptation to instrumentalize human life.

    Another area of concern in this area is buying eggs from college students, often for eugenic purposes of trying to assure the birth of a child who will be physically beautiful or one with high intelligence. Hyper ovulation, which over stimulates the ovaries so that the body produces 10-20 eggs a cycle rather than the usual one, can lead to very dire side effects, ranging from infertility, infection, stroke, even death. If human cloning is perfected, countless more eggs will be required to move the technology forward, perhaps opening the door to paying poor women in the West and destitute women from very poor countries to endanger themselves for the benefit of brave new world agenda items.

    We are in very real danger of turning some people into mere instrumentalities, which Kant decried and is certainly against the teaching of the Orthodox Church.

  8. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Hans, you say,

    Roger, the Catholics have done better thinking on these issues than the Orthodox

    I disagree. Perhaps Catholics have a better recent history of articulating the truth and faithfully witnessing to the truth of human life and we have. Pope John Paul’s Theology of the Body has some really good insights. However, the RC think is only built on the what the Church has always know and taught, prayed and celebrated even in the midst of oppression. It is only with ‘freedom’ that we have lost our way.

    It seems as if the majority of our bishops choose the path of worldly acquiesence or despotic tyranny longing for the ‘old country’. Since we have few who ‘rightly divide the word of truth’, a greater burden is placed upon us to discover, recover, live and articulate the reality the Church reveals to us. Personally I think that is the spirit of you work with AOI, is it not?

  9. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Not sure if I understand you Michael. The Russian Orthodox Church has done some notable work on the relationship of faith and culture, but it came about only after the Soviet Union fell. Freedom provided the opportunity. The Greek Orthodox Church in Greece also looks at bioethical issues in depth (can’t find the link). This too would not be possible if the Muslims still ruled Greece.

    I’m not challenging you here, just trying to draw the proper distinctions.

    Yes, the Catholic Church does draw on what has always been taught (although from the Orthodox point of view, we also bring criticisms to it). But this is why much of it is valuable. I was listening to EWTN radio in the car last night, and much of what was said about invitro fertilization was solidly Orthodox.

  10. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Wesley, I noticed that in all the discussion about “Octo-mom” that almost no one mentioned why six embryos (two split and became twins) were implanted in the first place.

  11. Fr. Johannes Jacobse:

    why six embryos (two split and became twins) were implanted in the first place.

    The chance that a single embryo survive is quite small. They choose to implant more than one and eliminate the “extra” surviving ones. Th procedure is called single embryo elimination using ultrasound lead heart puncture.
    I heard the story of a nurse who quit her job when she realized what was going on.

    The proud parents will probably tell the baby how much they love him but not how they selected him.

  12. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Hans, what I was attempting to describe is the temptations that come from what the world calls freedom: hedonism, materialism, etc. The support for IVF, abortion, organ harvesting, euthanasia, etc. that many titular and actual Orthodox believers express is one of the results. The re-discovery and the ability to articulate the teachings of the Church which you point to are also possible as the Turkish yoke has been weakend and the Soviet martyrdom ended.

    However, the essence of those works is and always has been in our prayers, and celebrations, the Holy Tradition that constitutes the life of the Church depspite the external situtation. It is to that we need to look and rely on.

    I was clumsily trying to point out that while the witness of the RCC is valuable and welcome, we don’t need to rely on it. Our own resources are far greater than theirs and despite the persecutions have never gone away. The license and the tempations of secular/scientistic modernity seem to pose a far greater threat to understanding and living our faith than the oppression.

  13. Michael Bauman :

    The proud parents will probably tell the baby how much they love him but not how they selected him.

    And Eliot, they may very well wonder at the sense of sorrow that follows them and their child. I have a friend who lost one twin in utero unintenionally. It was devastating to her and the surviving child has always missed her sister.

    What we call science and medicine understands little of the mystery of conception and birth as it contiues to be reduced to a bio-mechanical disease–a health problem that needs to be managed, cured if possible.

  14. Wesley J. Smith :

    Fr. Hans: With regard to your comment to me: We live in a radical “choice” culture. She had six implated because she wanted six implanted. The doctor was willing to do it. That about settles it. People wring their hands, but as I have noted in my writing elsewhere, as soon as legilation is introduced to prevent such occurrences in the future, the usual suspects bray in objection. IVF is practiced with no mandatory restrictions in the USA.

    Also, medicine is being transformed from a healing and palliating profession, to one that increasingly includes enabling lifestyle choices. This is bad for medicine, in my view, because it deprofessionalizes it and turns it into a technocratic and on-demand endeavor.

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