Archpastoral Statement on Stem Cell Research 2001

The whole question about human stem cell research hinges upon when human life begins. The Church has taught that human life begins at conception. This is when God enters a person into the world - a person who is soul and body.

The Church has taught this consistently throughout the ages. This truth has enabled generations of faithful to appreciate human nature as the bearer of the image of God, as the beneficiary of the divine grace of immortality and as the ultimate object of God's creative love and nurturance.

A human life is a person - in the full, wondrous meaning of the term. Holy Tradition speaks of personhood as possessing the qualities of royal authority, dignity, freedom and power. There is a beauty inherent in personhood that goes beyond the spectrum of our limited understanding. The fact that a human life is a person is a truth that cannot be measured by a microscope ... nor can it be legislated by law or jurisprudence. It is a truth revealed by God Himself, and witnessed only through the Church.

It is only the Church that witnesses to the greatness and profound beauty of personhood. This personhood begins simply, inexorably, and elegantly, at the moment of conception. Neither does the soul exist first by itself, nor does the body: both come into existence simultaneously. As St. Gregory of Nyssa has taught, "The beginning of existence is one and the same for body and soul."

This is the meaning of humanity. This is the beginning of human life. This doctrine is simple and unsophisticated. It is lucid and unambiguous. Its mystery and depth stretch far into eternity. This doctrine of humanity - this anthropology - has served countless numbers of faithful, educated and uneducated, for centuries. It has served as a consensus about human life, and as a basis for how persons - born and unborn - ought to be treated in society.

Until now.

Now there are other opinions and other "anthropologies." There are other theories advanced about the meaning of humanity, and about the where and when of the beginning of human life.

One of the grim consequences of this mélange of opinions is an atmosphere of ambiguity and confusion. Presently, there is little appreciation for objective truth about the meaning of humanity. Instead, there are a number of "theories" regarding human life that have come to the forefront. Each one is used as a rationale for the use of human stem cells in research, and the manipulation of human embryos.

Some believe that what is used for the harvesting of stem cells - the zygote - is only potential human life. They conveniently re-label the fertilized egg as a "pre-embryo," rather than an "embryo." They argue that personhood (or "singularity") is established when the zygote attaches to the uterine wall-- when it develops into a more complex "individuated" structure - then it becomes a person. This, they contend, is when human life begins - at the moment of implantation, not at conception.

Others believe that human life begins, arbitrarily, six months after conception, at the third trimester of pregnancy. This is the legal consensus of the U. S. Supreme Court, which concluded, in 1982, that "a fetus, at least during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, is not an existing person within the meaning of the Constitution."1

Unfortunately, this position is conservative compared to the continued legalization of late-term, partial-birth abortions - where live infants are slain within the birth canal itself. This horrific practice suggests the belief held by others that human life begins only after physical birth.

Incredibly, there are others who hold even more extreme opinions. The current Chair of Ethics at Princeton University holds that human life really does not begin until a child is two years of age. Until then, he says, even some animals are of greater worth than a human baby, who has not yet attained his criteria of personhood.

Why do we list these grievous opinions? Simply because they are the religious beliefs that animate and impel the destruction of human persons - whether they are embryos, several hours after fertilization ... or differentiated embryos which have achieved implantation ... or fetuses at 3, 6 or 9 months ... or children who have emerged into the world, gasping for air on their own. They are "religious beliefs" - but rest assured, they are not Christian religious beliefs. They are not even heresies - for heresies, at least, presume some particle of doctrine. There is nothing of true doctrine in these pagan, heathen beliefs, which seep from a religious system of radical materialism, romanticized atheism, and an arrogant commitment to lust and gluttony. It is the religion of this modern age.

The central problem of human stem cell research is the modern agnosticism about man. There is no consensus about what human life is - there is only a superfluity of ignorance and personal opinion. In this sterile vacuum of true belief, there has emerged only one social consensus that currently holds sway: it is an "agnostic" belief that there is no human life in the modern world. Thus, there is only biological tissue that may or may not have legal rights: a child who has survived birth has legal rights ... a fertilized egg or a fetus does not. But whether an egg or a fetus or a child is actually human - who is to say? Sadly, no one does say anymore. Humanity and personhood are truths that are no longer acknowledged in modern society.

This is why it is important to actively express the truth of Holy Tradition, and to bring its witness to bear upon this situation ... for who will speak for these weak, embryonic and fetal persons who cannot speak for themselves? How can we actively express our fidelity to the Truth?

Accordingly, we state clearly that stem cell research on tissue from human embryos involves the destruction of human persons. A person is destroyed when stem cells are harvested. Let us resist any attempt to confuse this matter by re-defining embryos to something less than what they really are.

We also express opposition to the current business, in fertility clinics and other medical institutions, of cultivating surplus human embryos. These "surplus embryos" are the source of most stem cell harvesting. The medical practice of sifting through embryos and evaluating their fitness for implantation is an appalling practice-one that results in the wholesale destruction of human life-- in that embryos, which are not implanted, are wantonly discarded. What doctor, geneticist or embryologist is qualified to act as God? This is exactly the role usurped by the practitioner who selects which embryos live, and which do not.

We are deeply concerned about the many thousands of people who suffer from grievous conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's Disease ... from spinal cord injuries and other conditions stemming from tissue degeneration. These people, and the many more who care for them, have been promised that stem cell research, and the use of stem cells in therapy, will result in healing and cure. The consequence of these well-marketed promises by the medical community is not surprising: if one opposes stem cell research, then he is judged to be also opposed to healing and cure. Indeed, the voices that advance the interests of stem cell research raise this issue in the media in no uncertain terms. As a result, we in the Church are slandered as "insensitive," "anti-technological," "simplistic and ignorant."

We remind our faithful who suffer these grievous medical conditions first that we hold them in our greatest pastoral love. Second, we remind them that these promises of healing and cure are only promises. There is very little evidence supporting these claims. Third, we gently remind them that no healing or medical benefit should ever come at the involuntary expense of human life. After all, the ends do not justify the means, no matter how noble.

We are sorrowfully amazed that so many in the Christian community prefer to see this issue only as a medical or technological issue. They seem afraid to look upon this problem as the glaring human tragedy it is. Once again, we hear of Christians who abdicate their moral responsibility by claiming that while they are personally opposed to the destruction of embryos and abortion, they support the right of other people to make such a decision. These same Christians suggest that the Church is unqualified to make judgments on medical technological issues like stem cell research, or to make judgments on personal freedom issues like abortion. They also suggest that the Church is being co-opted by fundamentalist and conservative political influences.

We should like to remind these critics that the Church has opposed the abortion of unborn children long before the fundamentalists and conservative politicians ever arrived on the scene. We also remind them that the wisdom of the Holy Church is pre-eminent, and it is up to them to condition their thinking upon the Tradition of the Church, instead of demanding that the Church modify Truth to accommodate their opinions.

Finally, we remind you, beloved faithful, and all of society, and ourselves, that God Himself establishes human life. Accordingly, human life is understood first in the Holy Orthodox Church, for it has kept, over the centuries, the witness of the Holy Spirit "guiding into all truth." Western civilization and modern society have repeatedly digressed from true "anthropology." Consider the disasters of this last century: 2 world wars ... social Darwinism ... the rise of radical secularism ... an abortion industry that slays millions of children annually. It can be argued that each of these horrific developments started out with a denial of Orthodox anthropology.

Once again, there is a new and more profound denial of the truth of human life: this time it takes the form of stem cell research. Unfortunately, it will proceed, for the economic forces compelling this research see too much money to be made. There will be other, more extreme renunciations of the truth. In cloning technology, it is already here ... and, mark my words, it will be horrible.

It is time for us all, and all medical technicians and scientists who really wish to know the truth, to sit down humbly, and consider the truth of human life from Orthodox Holy Tradition.

This is a demand, not a suggestion. We do not demand it--God does. He is the Creator It is time we start acting - and thinking - like His creatures.

                                         + METROPOLITAN NICHOLAS

1 (Senate Judiciary Committee statement of 1982, quoted by A. Varga
The Main Issues in Bioethics (Revised) (New York:Paulist Press, 1984)