Sacred Paths – Curing the Afflicted

You cannot understand religion if you exclude the passion for healing. Think about the religious groups that responded to the AIDS crisis in the early days, not only answering other churches who talked about the “wages of sin” but also setting up centers for care and support for research.
Think also about the many hospitals founded by churches, the ministry of Jesus with the sick, the medicine of Buddha, the Navajo medicine man, and the cure which is the Qur’an itself in Islam. The central concern of faith in one way or another is salvation, and the very term in English is derived from the Latin for “health.”
Missourians vote Nov. 7 on whether to make the state a place where politicians cannot impose their own theological perspectives on the rest of us. A Yes vote means that responsible and ethical research on early stem cells can continue and legal therapies and cures will be available in Missouri.
Some object that such research kills helpless babies. It does not.
One technique, SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer) does not use fertilized eggs, so this method represents no theological problem at all. Nonetheless, opponents try to scare the public by saying this method is cloning. In fact the amendment would make even the attempt to clone a human being illegal.
The other technique uses fertilized eggs. Some people honestly believe these eggs are actual human beings. But theologians differ. No scientist can tell you when an egg becomes a person, or, to use theological language, when “ensoulment” occurs.
• Many contemporary Catholics think this happens at the moment when the sperm and egg fuse.
• Other Catholics think it cannot happen until after the possibility of twinning has passed; otherwise, the soul could be split in two or one of the twins would get the soul and other would have no soul.
• Others say it is when implantation in the womb occurs.
• St. Thomas Aquinas said it was at quickening—40 days after conception, a view held by many Muslims as well.
• Dante thought it was when the brain structures are developed.
• Most traditions say a person emerges at birth.
The Supreme Court did not answer this theological question, but took a practical approach in the abortion case and said that generally state medical regulation is constitutional after viability, after the second trimester. Our legal system does not recognize a person until a child is born, and most parents name their children at that time.
Currently about a thousand fertilized cells are legally destroyed every day from in vitro fertilization clinics. In a fire, your priority is to rescue the one 5-year old remaining in the building over any number of undifferentiated cells in petri dishes.
Should what would otherwise be medical waste become a benefit leading to possible cures?
The promise of such research is an urgent religious question because, as I mentioned, healing is a central concern for people of faith. The possible cures for Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease, sickle cell, ALS. multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, spinal chord injuries, diabetes, and many other conditions inspire religious attention and support. What we learn could lead to an actual cure for AIDS.
The rabbinical association of Kansas City unanimously supports the amendment. Episcopal priest and former Senator Jack Danforth, an opponent of abortion, enthusiastically endorses stem cell research. Methodist minister, former mayor, and now Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, like clergy of many other Christian traditions, along with Buddhists and Muslims and others, feels that pursuing such cures is not only moral but obligatory.
When theology cannot offer certainty about abstract questions, the duty to do all we can to cure those afflicted leads me to vote for the research that Amendment 2 would protect.
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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