Terminal, incurable, and the future of stem cell research

On March 9, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Stem Cell Executive Order and Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum. This order removed funding restrictions put in place by President George W. Bush, restrictions allowing access to only a few specific embryonic cells lines produced prior to August of 2001. There has been much debate surrounding both Executive Orders, most frequently centering on the ethics involved with the creation, usage, and destruction of human embryos. Just as important, but less often discussed in non-academic circles, is the idea that the “full promise of stem cell research” is the natural outcome of our contemporary culture’s increasing secularization. As we move farther away from worshiping God, we move closer towards worshiping health and physical perfection. The President’s opening remarks illustrate how far we have moved towards a desire “to procure unlimited life for ourselves through pursuing health” (Van Eys and Vaux, 643). In his pre-signing statement, Mr. Obama spoke eloquently of the desires of scientists to push the boundaries of research, of failed investments and missed opportunities, of a “false choice between sound science and moral values” as if the two were mutually exclusive. All the while he evoked images of salvation designed to raise the practitioners of science and medicine to a level once reserved for that of God. “To regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair; to spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles” [italics added].

Ultimately he closes his remarks with a statement which is easily overlooked yet one which I believe is of great importance, a theme which I believe warrants further discussion. Mr. Obama speaks of “…seeking a day when words like ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ are potentially retired from our vocabulary” [italics added].

Terminal and incurable: two words none of us want to hear used in relation to either ourselves or our loved ones. Terminal implies a life-limiting disease process. An incurable illness certainly can be a terminal illness but it may also represent chronic, long-term disability. But why would we wish to retire these two words? In our current secular climate, where youth and the cult of self-worship reign supreme, they represent a loss of control and personal failure. It hasn’t always been this way. Prior to advances in sanitation, the discovery of antibiotics, and the widespread use of immunizations, disease processes were poorly understood. Illness, disability and death were seen as unexpected, sudden and unavoidable. Physicians and scientists were limited in their ability to alter or delay the natural order: birth, illness, death. Powerless over the inevitable, society was dependent on medicine and religion working together: medicine to attempt to treat or cure illness, thereby delaying death, and religion playing two roles, to comfort and prepare us for when medicine invariably fails, with illness ultimately serving as an “opportunity for growth in faith and trust in God” (Hauerwas, 67) and as importantly, to articulate and define the limitations of medicine. But what happens when society becomes more secular and determines that religion should play no part in shaping the boundaries of medicine and science? When the choice between “moral values” and “sound science” are seen as competing goods? To paraphrase the Christian bioethicist Joel James Shuman, contemporary American society then comes to regard death as its enemy and American medicine desires to forestall its inevitability. Indeed the late Arthur McGill, Bussey Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, once wrote that “the ‘most crucial task’ for this culture is to ‘create a living world where death seems abnormal and accidental’” (Shuman, 60).

A religious society may view incurable illness and disability as a humbling process, a way for the sufferer to atone for past sins or to demonstrate our fall from grace, as well as a means for the healthy and whole to model God’s love to those so afflicted. And, if death represents the entry into a fullness of communion with God, while not necessarily something to desire, at the very least it loses some of its sting. For how can we fear the very thing we were created for? On the other hand, our increasingly secular society views disability as a humiliating loss of control and self-sufficiency. And, with death representing an eternity of nothingness, it becomes something to be avoided at all costs. It is this extinguishment of self that brings us to the desire to use any means, no matter how questionable or problematic, to avoid disability, illness, and ultimately death. In his address, Mr. Obama states that he is a “person of faith,” believing that society is called to care for each other and to ease human suffering: I have no doubt that this is how he sees himself and and what he believes to be true. But the alleviation of terminal and/or incurable illnesses, while perhaps beneficial to the individual, may not be of value to society as a whole.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Shuman, Joel James. “Naming Medicine Among the Powers.” Ex Auditu (2005): p.52-66.

Van Eys, Jan and Kenneth Vaux. “A Declaration of Faith and Health.” The Christian CENTURY (1985): p.642-645.

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