For most religious people, the use of stem cells hinges on a philosophical question: When does a cell become human?
The answer often is – at the moment of conception, when egg and sperm meet.
Mormons, however, have a slightly different understanding of the connection between bodies and souls that could open the door for stem-cell research without compromising their ethics, said Rick Jepson on Thursday at the annual Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for Mormon thought that continues today at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City.
Jepson, an LDS registered nurse who works with kidney patients, began by laying out the biology of human development. After the egg is fertilized, the cell begins duplicating itself over and over. During the first six to seven days, these cells are not yet differentiated and can generate any number of different organs and tissues.
There is hope that these cells could help treat neural diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. They could be used to repair or replace damaged neurons and organs such as the liver and pancreas.
But is this mass of cells, no larger than the period at the end of the preceding sentence, a human being?
Not yet, said Jepson.
At about two weeks, a line known as the “primitive streak” emerges to divide a body into back and front, right and left. After that, the cell begins developing into a particular individual.
“This is the earliest possible time we could say that this is a human being,” Jepson said.
For him, it’s a clear demarcation.
And he has LDS Church statements – or the absence of statements – to back him up.
To Mormons, individual human souls existed before this life and will continue after. They are uncreated, eternal beings. Brigham Young said life begins when a mother feels life move in her womb. Those fetuses that die before birth can return again for a second try in a new body, Young taught. LDS leader J. Reuben Clark suggested that the spirit doesn’t enter the body officially until birth but checks the body’s progress all during pregnancy.
For its part, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position on when life begins or on stem-cell research. According to a 2001 poll, 62 percent of Utahns, 56 percent of Mormon Utahns and 47 percent of conservative Utahns all support this research.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is Mormon, backs embryonic stem-cell research as do Utah’s other senator, Bob Bennett, and Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.
This “Mormon Stem Cell Choir” could lead the way for conservative Christians to support stem-cell research, said Michael Goldsmith, a Brigham Young University law professor and stem-cell activist.
For two months, Goldsmith has been working to dispel myths about the LDS Church and stem-cell research. These myths include the belief that the church opposes this research, that this research will give rise to human cloning, that adult stem cells can achieve the same results and that it involves the destruction of implanted embryos.
All these are false assumptions, said Goldsmith, who has taught at the LDS Church-owned school for more than 20 years as a Jew. He understands and appreciates Mormonism, its doctrines and ethics.
“What greater force could you enlist than an army of returned Mormon missionaries working to promote stem-cell research,” he said. “This is a chance to change the world.”
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