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Profs reflect different eras of Southern Seminary’s worldview

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A debate on stem cell research sponsored by a civic organization highlighted the worldview differences between a current professor and a former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

William Cutrer, who is a medical doctor and serves as the C. Edwin Gheens Professor of Christian Ministry at the Louisville, Ky., campus, and Paul Simmons, who served as professor of Christian ethics at Southern from 1970-92, were among the panelists in a discussion of “Stem Cell Research: The Science and Ethics” hosted by the Louisville Forum Dec. 8.

Cutrer advocated adult stem cell research because it does not involve the destruction of human embryos whereas embryonic stem cell research is destructive of “a valuable human life.”

Simmons, who is currently a clinical professor in the department of family and geriatric medicine at the University of Louisville Medical School, disagreed, arguing that science has a moral obligation to pursue embryonic stem cell research. Simmons also argued that an embryo is not a person and is of “disputable value.”

Appearing on the panel with Cutrer and Simmons was Scott Whittemore, vice chair of the medical school’s department of neurological surgery.

Cutrer said adult stem cell research has great potential to alleviate medical conditions ranging from orthopedic problems to leukemia and spinal cord injuries.

“Embryonic stem cell [research] requires the destruction of a human being at its earliest stages,” he said. “… Whereas the adult stem cell research … has demonstrated remarkable success.”

The root problem with embryonic stem cell research is that it fails to recognize the value that God assigns to human life, Cutrer said.

“Human beings are of inestimable value,” he said. “They are made in the image of God…. From the one-celled individual, I see that as a valuable human life worthy of protecting. Whether it’s in a petri dish, whether it’s frozen, I see that in the continuum of God’s creation.”

Simmons said the arguments of those who oppose embryonic stem cell research “don’t hold water philosophically, biblically or religiously or even biologically.” An embryo is not a person and should be recognized as a tool for research, he said.

“One cannot substitute an entity of questionable or unknown value for one that is of known and indisputable value,” Simmons stated. “You cannot claim, ‘We must protect an embryo’ when you’ve got a person to deal with. The person requires attention. The embryo is of disputable value. That is a basic norm, a rule in ethics, law and common sense.”

When asked about creating embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them for embryonic stem cell research, Simmons responded that such a proposal makes him “nervous” but is not immoral.

“One of those things that makes me nervous is actually creating pre-embryos for the sake of research,” Simmons said. “Now against that nervousness is the fact that even if you create it, it’s not a person…. So while I’m nervous about it, I don’t think that amounts to anything like an absolute prohibition based on moral objection. It’s an emotional nervousness.”

Whittemore noted that adult stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells. Although embryonic stem cells present some difficulties for researchers, their great potential for curing diseases should encourage scientists to purse further research in embryonic stem cells, he said.

“This is a very important issue, and I would just ask you all to keep a very open mind and think about how you’d feel if your 14-year-old child had juvenile diabetes or your grandfather had Parkinson’s disease,” Whittemore said. “These are very complex and crucial issues … for us to knee jerk and jump one way or the other…. It is a very difficult issue that requires careful thought and input from all sides.”

Cutrer noted that there are currently 400,000 frozen embryos in the United States. One of the best ways for Christians to show compassion for frozen embryos is to adopt them through agencies such as the Snowflake Adoption Agency, he said.

“Couples that are desirous of pregnancy can adopt these unwanted frozen embryos,” he said. “… Those couples that are heroically offering to try to give them a chance to survive –- that, to me, is an ethical response to what is a challenging situation.”

Christians must bear in mind that Jesus began His life on earth as a one-celled embryo and had the hand of the Holy Spirit upon Him from the beginning of His life, Cutrer said. Remembering the embryonic beginnings of Jesus’ human life should encourage believers to protect all embryos, he said.

Simmons responded that the life of Jesus cannot teach modern believers anything concrete about the value of embryos.

“When you deal with the conception of Jesus, you’re dealing with something outside our ability to find out,” Simmons said. “We don’t know what went on there. I do know that in Christian mythology, the way we put it is that this was a virginal birth. But Matthew and Luke disagree. Was this a virginal birth or was this a virginal conception? Even the Scriptures disagree.

“We can’t prove anything about the virgin birth with regard to the current debate about abortion or stem cell research or anything else. In religious circles I affirm the traditional stories about Jesus. When I preach in a Baptist church, that’s my frame of reference. But when I deal with stem cell research in med school, that has nothing to do with the question about stem cell research.”

Cutrer concluded that adult stem cell research is a proper application of God’s command to exercise dominion over the earth, but embryonic stem cell research must be prevented because God has not given human beings dominion over fellow humans.

“As I understand God’s relation to us, He has given us authority and dominion over the plant and animal kingdom,” Cutrer said. “So the marvelous research that [scientists are] conducting [with adult stem cells] is totally ethical. I totally support that. The things that we will learn from that will help us in many ways.”