Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

Ok, by now, many of you know I have a habit of sitting down and relating seemingly unrelated things.

Last night I was asked to serve on a panel sponsored by MissouriCures, the advocacy group in the state that seeks to educate the public about the value of embryonic stem cell research and to try to diffuse some of the political rhetoric about their use in research.

I always wear several hats in these panel discussions. Although I am not a researcher, I often have to wear my "scientist" hat to explain the science of it all in simple terms. I have to wear my "physician" hat in terms of my beliefs that we should embrace both kinds of stem cell research (embryonic and adult) for the potential for cure. I have to wear my "incidental political advocate" hat because of previous attempts in Missouri to ram draconian legislation that would have made patients criminals for leaving the state to seek potential stem cell cures if/when they become available, and made their doctors criminals at risk of losing their medical license for advising patients of such choices should they come to pass. I wear my "caretaker" hat from my experiences of caring for someone with dementia, and years before that, caring for someone with muscular dystrophy. I wear my "person of deep faith" hat to have to explain that I don't have a faith problem with using discarded embryos that are destined for the dumpster for research.

Lots of hats.

In preparing for these talks, I often struggle to think HOW to explain all these things to the average lay person and not appear superior or speak "over people's heads." The one I constantly struggle with is how to explain that I acknowledge that these are human cells, but I am not convinced they have "personhood" at the moment of conception, nor do I really wish do define those things, but rather leave them on the table as one of God's mysteries.

Well, I had an epiphany in Hy-Vee. (I hate to admit this, but I have more epiphanies in Hy-Vee than I do in church.) I had it in the "baking" aisle, as I walked past the cans of Eagle Brand Condensed Milk.

Now, a can of Eagle Brand milk has everything in it you need to make caramel; namely, sugar and milk, (although you'd probably add butter just to keep it from sticking in the pan.) In fact, one of the fun and slightly dangerous things my grandpa used to do was show me how you could make caramel with it still in the can in a pot of water on a campfire. (Yeah, ok, so sometimes the can would blow up, but that was fun, too!)

Well, we'd never put the Eagle Brand milk in the candy aisle of the grocery store and tell people it's "caramel." Yet it has everything you need to make caramel right there, even still in the can! But it's not "caramel" until you cook it.

By the same token, a fertilized human embryo has everything you need to make a person, but it will never become a person until it attaches to the wall of the uterus and incubates. In other words, like the Eagle Brand milk, you have to "cook" it before it becomes a person.

At what point, at what exact moment does sugar and milk become caramel? Anyone who ever made a batch of caramel will tell you IT'S DIFFERENT EVERY TIME YOU MAKE A BATCH. For that matter, do I really care exactly when? No. I just want it to become caramel!

Well, that is kind of how I feel about human embryos. Every one has the potential to become a person, but they will never do that unless they attach to the uterine wall, incubate, and grow. Somewhere in that process, a person comes out of it. It's something I respect, rejoice in, and find incredibly sacred. But to get all nitpicky about exactly when, frankly, cheapens the power of it. So in that sense, I don't have a problem with using these embryos for research when the owners of them have no desire to use them for in vitro fertilization, and their ultimate destination is the medical waste bucket.

Then, as I was driving home from Hy-Vee, for some reason I got to thinking about the consecrated elements of the Eucharist. Same story. Bread, water, and wine come together on the table, and somewhere in the Eucharistic prayer, they become sacraments. Yeah, sure, we say it happens at the epiclesis, but at what moment is that, really? Or what scientific study can be done to prove that hypothesis? None, obviously. We take on faith that "something happens" that makes these elements "different." We accept this with no problem. So why is this so hard for some people to accept that the beginnings of human life are as much a mystery as the Eucharist? We have accepted ways of disposing of sacramental elements that will never be put into human mouths. What's the difference?

When it's all said and done, I think those embryos are a mystery, as powerful as the elements of the Eucharist. If they can be used for the potential of good in others, when before they were bound for the trash, I think, actually, that it is good theologic economy as well as good scientific stewardship.


Wonderful post that will have me thinking for awhile. I've wanted to post on my blog over all the turmoil over the murder etc. This will get me thinking.

In regards to the eucharist you make a very interesting analogy and one that I deserves more thought. The loaf of bread and bottle of wine sit unopened awaiting use that morning in church. At this point who values these items as potentially sacred? Very, very few - likely only the old guy who donated them that day for the eucharist in memory of his deceased wife...Call him the "every sperm is sacred" representative. Now in comes the altar guild ladies preparing the church - the bread is unwrapped, the wine is decanted - and the items are placed on the creedance table or at the back of the church for the offering. Now who might be disturbed if someone came along and drank and/or spilled the wine and toasted the bread? Probably the altar guild ladies, the guy who brought them, and those few folks who come to church early to sit and pray. These might be the "fertilized egg" people. How easy to say - what are you getting so worked up for? It's just some bread and wine? Well, for them isn't it already something more?

Now the items are brought to the altar by the ushers during the service, they are received by the Deacon (had to get that bit in there) and ready for the communion prayer. What if at this point some lunatic runs in and grabs the items off the altar, throws the bread down and stomps it and chugs some of the wine, spilling some down his greasy shirt front and onto the floor before taking off again. How many would be upset or angry? Just bread and wine still?

And now finally they are blessed during the eucharistic prayer? What is not used is to be dealt with appropriately. Yet there are many now in the church who would STILL say - nope, pitch it, just bread and water.

You'll note that I stopped making comparisons with the unborn there towards the end. It gets to be a very challenging subject, doesn't it?

Somewhere between alleged sacred sperm and fertalized eggs and unborn babies in the final trimester it stops being just "bread and wine" for me.

Further I would argue that yes those baby-cicles are dependent on a healthy uterus, as a 33 week old prenancy is still dependent on that uterus or an incubator in a NICU, that new born is still dependent on a safe home, a warm breast. That toddler is still dependent on a loving family, a safe environment...all the way up to that frail elderly octogenarian is dependent on their "womb" to stay alive. The nature of the vessel changes throughout the life span. If you separate the life from it's vessel does that mean it is no longer life? I don't know.

Excellent discussion. That for me is where the "caramel" comes in. I know that every batch of cooked sugar and milk ends up becoming caramel at some point. But I know if I make two batches, the time it starts to turn brown, harden, etc. are different points of time in the same batch. I know if you and I both watched a same batch being cooked and asked "when did it become caramel" we might pick different times in the cooking process.

So getting back to the stem cells, I know what works for me, but does not influence others necessarily. I know that two people own these fertilized eggs. I know if it was their choice not to let them be used for other infertile couples, when that couple no longer wishes to have more children, it is their choice to either have the embryos discarded or used for research. These are their choices and I believe they have a right to do this.

If they choose to donate them for research, I don't have a particular problem. In this scenario, these embryos will never be implanted. The potential for good is there in this research.

I respect other's opinions not to see it this way. If potential treatments result from this, it would also certainly be their right not to choose such treatments.

You are absolutely right that the vessel changes, and we also make decisions all the time over treating, not treating, etc. along all phases of this spectrum. So I don't see the embryos so much as whether they are alive "with vs. without" the uterus, but simply that you need (dare I say it?) the "trinity" of sperm, egg and vessel for there even to be the potential of it becoming a born human.

Nice topic as we approach Trinity Sunday, LOL....

Well, the fear (not necessarily mine) is that we would begin manufacturing embryos for science. Just as a family can donate their deceased loved ones remains to science or an awaiting organ donor, I think that the "parents" of the frozen embryos should decide what is to be done with them.

I really hate the dichotomy of the "Pro-abortion/Anti-choice" argument. I chose the two negative descriptors on purpose. I am very much anti-abortion and yet very much pro-choice. I wince heartily at the thought of some low on the food chain couple gettin her uterus "scraped" for the 5th time because they were too high or drunk to remember the birth control...but I wince at the thought of the 42 y.o. woman who because of a fluctuation in her hormones and birth control ended up pregnant with 2 already grown kids and an ex-husband and birth defect issues to worry about being forced to carry the baby to term.

I do believe abortion is terminating a life, but as a former pediatric nurse, I would rather choose to accept an aborted fetus than be faced with an abused or neglected and unloved or poorly loved child.

With what we know about the effects of a variety of behaviors on that pregnancy, I shudder to think what kinds of issues we'd be dealing with if some of these "mothers to be" (and I use the term loosely) brought their babies to term.

I think you and I share a lot of the same sentiment regarding this topic. In the case of stem cells, I really hate how the more vitriolic side of the "pro-life" movement (and I use the term in quotes on purpose) paint stem cell research as an "either/or" proposition when it comes to embryonic and adult stem cells. I am very angry at their "73 cures for adult stem cells/ 0 for embryonic" rhetoric. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine (not exactly the bastion of liberalism) exposed that as mostly bunk. I think we need to explore both options and "take what we get" in terms of potential cures and treatments to alleviate human suffering.

Absolutely, but there are times when the potential for comparison with Brave New World starts to get creepy. I know these stories verge on the Reagan era Cadillac Welfare Queen variety - but hearing reports of parents having another child so there might be a bone marrow match for their existing child with cancer, creating embryos for research, that woman in California with her 15 or so infertility kids. We already have folks selling their organs in poor parts of the world. At what point does the scientist become Dr. Frankenstein? It seems that biologically we're nearing a breakthrough akin to fusion. Will it bring bad with the good?

I always remind myself that science is amoral; what we choose to do with it is the morality of any new technology. At least in this country, the people like you mentioned are held in public scrutiny via the press and at least we have moral debate.

A hundred years ago, I imagine "letting someone die" and harvesting their organs would have been considered creepy, and 80 years ago, lots of people thought eugenics was okay. So I like to believe that as a species, we are able to morally evolve at least to some degree.

That does not excuse human rights abuses, of course.

Will it bring bad with the good? Of course. We'll have to sort it all out, just like always.

I wish I had written this post.

That is all.

Talk about "cheapening the power" of God's creation. You are comparing a human with a heartbeat at 22 days, to a can of milk and sugar. You probably have more sympathy for a simple dying ant, than a human baby. The baby may not look like a baby early on, but given the chance to develop, it does not turn into a fish, a frog or even an ant; it is a person.

Isaiah 44:2
Thus saith the LORD that made thee, and formed thee from the womb...

Jeremiah 1:5
Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee....

Well, Anonymous, I'm truly sorry you are seeing what I am saying in such literal terms, when I said nothing of the sort. I spoke of three things that I consider mysteries. I have no idea why you drug dying ants into the story. Also, these embryos are frozen before the 22 days you mention. I am not sure why you feel the need to accuse me of things I did not see nor necessarily think. I suppose that is your issue, not mine. I wish you peace on your journey.

I also do not engage in flame wars with anonymous posters and any vitriolic comments you post beyond this one will be deleted. I do, however, engage in civil discussion with people who at least reveal their blog handles.



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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