Many Christians will accept catchy phrases as mantras without thinking through them. For example, "Life begins at conception" is a statement that has become a canon of orthodoxy among many conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals. However, we need to think through both the theology and the science of this erroneous statement. Life actually exists prior to conception, both in the male sperm and the female egg. Life continues when a sperm and an egg unite. Human life, however, only begins when God creates the human soul (see Zechariah 12:1 and Ecclesiastes 12:7). Scientists can unite a sperm and egg in a petri dish, but they cannot create the human soul. Science can now clone human cells, but science will never be able to create the human soul. As John Gill says, "The soul of man, with all its powers and faculties, gifts and endowments is of God's immediate creation... hence He is called the Father of spirits" (Hebrews 12:9). Most Christians have never considered the fact that science cannot create man's immaterial spirit. The spirit is the essence of the human and distinguishes human beings from beasts. Only God creates the living soul.
The science of in vitro fertilization, gene therapy and human cloning can be traced back to the early 1950's and the woman pictured above. Before you accept the mantra "Life begins at conception," and labor over pondering how human cells in test tubes can possibly be human beings, you probably need to know who Henrietta Lacks is. Blogger Moses Model tells her story. Her full name is Henrietta Lacks, but you would know her as HeLa. Henrietta's cells became the first of what scientists now call "immortal cells." Moses explains:
"Medical researchers need human cells to test their theories and learn how the human cell works. The types of cells they need are called, 'immortal cells.' These cells can be grown indefinitely, divided among scientists around the world, and frozen for decades. However until the 1950’s they did not exist.
In 1951, a thirty year old African American woman went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for assistance with her cervical cancer. While there, a scientist sampled the cells of her tumor without her permission. For unknown reasons these cells continued to reproduce in the labs becoming the first immortal cell line. Though Henrietta Lacks died later that year, her cell line survives around the world till this day.
These cells were named after the first two letters in her first and last name. Dubbed HeLa cells these cells were used in the development of the first polio vaccine just a year later. The cells have been used in much scientific advancement including in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and even cloning.
Twenty–five years later, in1976, HeLa cells had been contaminated... Given the challenge of separating out HeLa cells from every other immortal cell line, a post doctoral student decided to call Henrietta’s widower in Clover, Virginia. What Henrietta's widower understood from the phone call, and then relayed to his family, was that the scientist said,“We’ve got your wife. She’s alive in a laboratory. We’ve been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.” This is not what the scientist stated, but he did not realize that Henrietta’s family would not understand.
Because some of Henrietta’s family belonged to a faith healing Christian sect, HeLa cells have taken on a religious persona since that fateful phone call in 1976. If you put every HeLa cell end to end, they would stretch around the globe at least three times. Combined they weigh at least 50 million metric tons. Some in Henrietta's family have considered her to be the “Lord's first immortal being”, chosen and brought back to life in Hela cells in order to cure diseases. Sometimes, according to the family, Henrietta still will cause problems. Her daughter thought that her mother intentionally contaminated the cell lines in 1976 as a way of getting back at the scientists who used her. Henrietta's daughter ferverently believed that her mother’s soul existed in these petri dishes and test tubes from London to Sydney. The daughter worried that her mother was unable to be at rest or felt pain from the countless experiments performed globally over the decades.
Here lies a large part of a theological argument. Are human cell lines still human? More importantly do they have a soul. The modern anti-abortion movement teaches that life begins at conception. Though a secular argument, the pro-life movement seems to imply that a human soul inhabits a single celled organism. The argument against stem cell research seems to imply that a human soul inhabits a blastocyst which contains around seventy to a hundred cells. Evangelical anthropology assumes that a soul can exist without a brain on the microscopic scale. Jeremiah is told
"Before I formed you in your mother's womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart" (Jeremiah 1:5).
For the last two centuries this verse has been interpreted as life, a human soul, begins at conception. For most of the rest of church history, this was not the mainstream interpretation. Cekk lines are not like removing a limb. Any human debris that I leave behind given enough time will generally decay. If I lose a limb eventually this limb would rot before or soon after my passing. Cell lines have the ability to out live their original body. Not only do they outlive the body, they can reproduce and proliferate and be taken to corners of the globe the body has never seen. In this sense, and I think the correct sense, cell lines are like organ transplants. I have had the pleasure of knowing individuals who have donated their liver to patients, because of what they considered to be God's command. In these instances, they do not believe that their soul is attached to another individual. Likewise when one receives a kidney donation, one generally does not bind the other soul to their body. Organ donors are not thought to rest in pieces instead of peace.
I wish that I could be more Biblical, but the Bible does not give much guidance in these matters. There are general principles, but these were taught to people who only thought on a macroscopic scale instead of a microscopic. Like Henrietta's family, they had no idea what a cell even was, much less that they could exist beyond death ... Even without much spiritual guidance, I am fairly certain the soul remains with the whole instead of being scattered every place that we leave our cells."
We should never forget that the Lord alone is the Creator of the human soul. The Lack family may lack such knowledge, but we who believe the Bible should know this truth and believe it. Let's be pro-life. Let's respect the dignity of all human beings. However, let's fight for the sanctity of human life with full-orbed truth and not catchy slogans.