Of Stem Cells & Starry Nights

[Again, December 2001]

You must think of something immense: a star standing still in the indigo sky, reigning like the sun. It casts back darkness and illuminates even the corners of the cattleyard, so that all that is humble, dirty and scuffed is revealed. The star waits. Three kings come into the pool of its light, and find there a greater King, greater than any blazing star.

Now you must think of something very small: in a cold, dark place there are miniature children suspended in frost, snow babies, unmoving and unbreathing. They are everywhere, in ice orphanages across the country, and there are many of them, a couple of hundred thousand, myriad as the stars in the sky.

But there is something smaller still. It is the individual cells that these sleeping bodies contain. Left intact and implanted in a womb, they would grow into a little boy or girl. Tweezered out by scientists they will grow, but only into tissue, like the stuffing inside a doll.

Such a thing seems nightmarish, Frankensteinish, and the impulse is to say once again that our ability to do such things has outdistanced our ability to weigh whether we should. But there is unexplored hope here, the experts plead. Look at these people, young men in wheelchairs, old men shaking, children weak in their mother’s arms. A few of these cells might grow and restore what has been lost. It might restore full health.

The cost? Nothing, really. Most of these sleeping snow babies are doomed never to wake. Their parents intentionally created far more embryos than they could use. Occasionally a couple asks to adopt an abandoned embryo by implantation, but far less than enough to rescue them all. Many of them would die in the rough process of implantation anyway. Yet if the parts were disassembled and tended they might improve another’s life.

To what can we liken such a plea? Is it like taking the corneas of an accident victim and using them to give a blind person sight? Or is it like harvesting skin from a Jewish corpse and using it to make a lampshade?

We try again to picture the tiny embryos and to feel sympathy for their condition. It doesn’t come naturally. They don’t look like babies. They look like blobs‚Aiwhat you can see, anyway, which is little larger than a pinpoint. They aren’t warm and cuddly, but still and cold. This suspended existence looks like nothing in human experience‚Ailike nothing worth preserving. Why not just let them go, so they can be useful?

Herein lies the lie. Useful. Imagine a human being whose sole purpose is to be food for another human being. Did God ever create such a thing? Every human life is precious, unique, in ways only God knows‚Aihe has formed our hidden parts in secret, with care. Every one of us is an end, not a means. No one was made to be a lampshade. No one was made to supply body parts for another person that he still has need of for himself. As long as there is life, it is forbidden to take life. It is the speculating on the theoretical benefits of this temptation that confuses us, just as it did Eve. “You shall be as Gods,” the serpent promised, but it was a lie.

Frayed edges show around the border of this lie, too. Other scientists say that early testing with embryonic tissue have had appalling results. The cells grow fast‚Aitoo fast, consigning Parkinson’s patients to uncontrollable muscle jerking, quivering, and gnawing. Stem cells from other sources, say an umbilical cord or the patient himself, grow more slowly, but more usefully.

Useful. Did God ever send a human life to earth to be food for other humans? Did he ever send someone, knowing he was bound to die?

The great King in the manger is very small‚Aitiny, weak, and helpless. He is doomed to die. But in this small thing we glimpse something immense, greater than the eye can see. These hands, so frail and easily pierced, flung all the stars across the sky. He is just a baby now, but once he was even less than this, on the day Gabriel announced and Mary sang praise, the day the child in her womb was no larger than a pinpoint. He became very small in order to save us, because he had somewhere very small to go. Smaller even than a manger. Our Master and servant, our food and our Lord, became small enough to enter the most narrow, cramped and darkened place on earth, our own selfish hearts.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.