The Church and Bioethics: Abortion and Stem Cell Research

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on May 1, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning abortion, stem cell research, and bioethics.

My position will be that babies in the womb, including the embryonic and fetal stages, are image bearers of God whose lives are to be protected and nurtured.

Four questions to answer addressing the topic of abortion and stem cell research:
1. Is there a difference between human life and human personhood?
2. What about Exodus 21?
3. Why is stem cell research a bioethical issue?
4. How does the gospel make a difference?

Is there a difference between human life and human personhood?
Most recent discussions that have a direct impact on public policy concerning abortion have centered around the question of what constitutes a human person. Why has the discussion of personhood become so important? Well, today most scientists, philosophers, educators, doctors, and theologians will agree that a human embryo, even from the first moment of fertilization, is a human life. This is difficult to refute. It is obviously alive, it possesses human DNA, and unless it is interfered with, will naturally develop through the various human life stages of maturity and development. But the Western world is now debating not so much if an embryo is a human life, but if all human life should be granted full human rights and thus equally protected.

Many are debating today that not all human lives are actually human persons, and that only persons are able to possess the kind of human rights that will protect them from harm. This, of course, has a tremendous impact on how people are thinking about abortion. If a human life is not yet a person and therefore does not have full human rights, such as the right to life, then abortion is not murder. But is this right? How does the Bible guide us in this area?

Although we have used the language of personhood to describe deep theological truths – such as the Trinity and the person of Christ – the Bible does not speak directly to the issue of if there is a distinction between human life and human personhood. Instead, the Bible speaks on these things in terms of the image of God and the impact of being created in that image. Let’s look at two examples:

Psalm 51 is a beautiful prayer by David seeking forgiveness for his multitude of sins.
First, notice that David refers to his time in the womb as “me.” There is a continuity in David’s inspired writing of himself with whatever stage of development he was in the womb.

Second, and even more powerfully, is that David identifies himself as a sinner, even while in the womb. This is not merely the mother’s sin, for the entire Psalm is about David’s sin and his pleas for forgiveness. This teaching lines up perfectly with Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men…”
David is teaching us in Psalm 51 that his sinful condition is not just a result of his own personal actions, but because of his association with Adam. (now let’s pause here and be reminded of a beautiful gospel truth. It is through our association with the first Adam, the one from Genesis 1-3, that we are by nature sinners and children of wrath. But it is through our association with the second Adam, that is Jesus Christ, that we take on his righteous nature and become a child of God.) But the point here is that since David identifies himself as a sinner in his embryonic state, then even as a human life in the womb, he carried with him moral accountability, that is to say, the need to be forgiven of sin. This necessarily means that even before David was born, he was an image-bearing human person.

Psalm 139 is another example. Here the continuity of David with his “inward parts” is consistent with Psalm 51. But even more striking is the degree of care that God shows to this baby inside the womb. Matthew 6:26-30 teaches us that God does not show the same level of value and personal care for all of his creation. Humans who bear his image are his top priority. And this Psalm most beautifully demonstrates how God sees the life in the womb as a full image-bearing human person.

We can also turn our attention to Luke 1 and the announcement by Gabriel that Mary would conceive and bear a son. Jesus, as we know, is the ultimate image-bearer of God who perfectly identifies with humans and yet is without sin. But notice that Jesus does not just appear in his adult human form. He identifies, from first to last, with the full range of image-bearing human persons, which meant he came in the first stage of maturity and development – a life in the womb. In this way, Jesus completely lived for us, completely died for us, and completely saves us.

From these three examples, we can say that the Bible does not specifically target the language of personhood, but highlights the image-bearing nature of humanity from inside the womb, which means from a biblical perspective, there is no difference between a human life and a human person. From fertilization onward, we are image bearers of God and have a right to life.

What about Exodus 21?
Pro-choice advocates have historically used Exodus 21:22 as a pivotal text to demonstrate how the Bible views life in the womb as less than a human person. Let’s read the verse and see if that claim holds up. “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Now, you are probably wondering why pro-choice folks look to this text to support their position when in fact it appears to harm their position. Well, that’s right. This is actually a verse that once again shows the image-bearing nature of life in the womb. Look at it closely. The Bible is speaking about harm to either the children or the mother.

So why do pro-choice folks latch on to this? Because a few translations, including the New Revised Standard Version and the 1977 New American Standard Bible, translate it differently: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.” (Emphasis mine)

In this translation, the text indicates the “no further injury” is to the mother alone, seemingly making the death of the baby in the womb a trivial matter, compensated by a fine.

Now, in 1995 the NASB updated the text of their translation in order to use the most up to day scholarship. Their updated text says something very different from the 1977 translation. It says, “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide.”

So which translation is correct? The language evidence in this one verse coupled with the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on this topic shows that the updated version, and thus the translation of almost every modern translation (and most older translations, such as the KJV) is correct – the translation should be “her children come out” instead of “has a miscarriage.” This shows how life in the womb was considered just that – an image-bearing human person, and penalties would be paid in relation to the harm, or lack thereof, that came to the baby.

Why is stem-cell research a bioethical issue?
Stem cell research receives a significant amount of attention because of the potential to use the cells in ways that could produce better treatments for disease and illnesses. Because of that, many Christians struggle with an additional layer of ethical decision making – a case of which is the greater good, to preserve the life of a human embryo or to destroy that life in hopes of helping humans who are more fully matured and developed.

Stem cells are distinct from other types of cells because they are not fully differentiated. That just means that stem cells are able to develop into a variety of other cell types, leaving the possible scientific study on them open to many possibilities. The most important and valuable of stem cells are called “pluripotent” cells because they are are undifferentiated. Multipotent are the next valuable, and then unipotent are the least valuable to scientists. The ethical tension comes in the fact that human embryos, that is to say our children, are a rich source of pluripotent cells, the kind that are most valuable.

It is very difficult for Christians, even in light of all the evidence we have already discussed as the image-bearing nature of human life in all of its stages, to argue against stem cell research because all of us know loved ones and friends who could potentially benefit from this kind of scientific progress. It is easy to be seen as unloving to hold a position against stem cell research. Thus, this is another position where Christians will need to cultivate Christian courage. If human embryos do indeed bear the image of God in their personhood, then harming or killing them for the profit of another, even another who is more fully developed, is morally wrong and against all that we believe in Christ. Some of the most heinous periods in world history have come through brilliant arguments for the harming of those who are weaker, smaller, or supposedly dispensable for the perceived greater good of others.

But not all is lost here. Embryos are not the only source of stem cells and technology is providing additional sources for scientific study. Umbilical cord blood is one example of a plentiful source of stem cells, and even more promising is that scientists have started working on ways to extract stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryo itself, which of course would remove the difficult ethical considerations altogether.

How does the gospel make a difference?
First, the gospel reminds us of sacrifice and service, the vision statement of all Christians. In setting the ultimate example, Christ willingly left that which was comfortable, that which was majestic and perfect, that which was rightfully his, and took on a world of sacrifice and inconvenience. In 2014, an estimated 977,000 abortions took place in the US alone. Of those 977,000, a significant portion, upwards of 3/4 of women said they did not want a baby because it would interfere with their life. And listen, they are right about that. Babies get in the way. They can be loud and never sleep and are so demanding and inconvenient. They are expensive and seem to be so darn ungrateful. But do you remember what we said on day one of this sermon series? We said that bioethical issues involve a comprehensive view of who we are as Christians and must never be reduced to just the issue at hand. This is a perfect example. Apart from our Christ-centered worldview where the gospel instructs us on what service and sacrifice looks like, an annoying, interfering baby would be, well, just that. An annoyance. And who wants that? But in Christ, we find our joy through sacrifice. Our joy through service. Our joy in putting others before ourselves.

Second, the gospel reminds us of community and the church. After all, it was for the church that Christ died. Now listen, the church isn’t perfect. Far from it. But we love each other, sometimes in awkward ways, but we do. And we love babies. I can promise you that you will find a place of refuge and advice and help and support from the people of Graefenburg Baptist Church. That won’t make things easy for you. That won’t mean you will gets lots of sleep. But you will get help when you ask, you will be invited into community with us, and we will rally around you.

Third, the gospel reminds us of forgiveness. There is no condemnation for those of you who are in Christ Jesus. Abortion is one of those topics that when preached, seems crystal clear. But when there is a baby inside of your body that will disrupt everything, including perhaps your reputation, things become muddy very quickly. I understand that. Brother and sister, if you have a history that includes abortion and you have sought the Lord Jesus in forgiveness, then he does not condemn you and your guilt is removed. And if the Lord Jesus does not condemn you, then neither will Graefenburg Baptist Church.

But if you have not yet asked Christ to forgive you, then come to him today. He is gentle and ready to forgive. He will not turn you away.