Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rough Draft: Stuff Pro-lifers Should Know: Cell Lines have no souls

Henrietta Lacks with her husband.  Source for the image
Before one understands the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses, one must first understand what a cell line is.   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, 1976, HeLa cells had contaminated many cultures of cells that were thought to contain prostate and breast cells.  Given the challenge of separating out HeLa cells from every other immortal cell line, a post doc decided to call Henrietta’s widower in Clover, Virginia.  However, he only had a third grade education and did not even know what a cell was.  What he understood from the phone call was a little different,“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 state, 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, thirty five years ago.  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 her family have considered her to be the “Lord's first immortal being”, chosen and brought back to life as these cells to cure diseases and she sometimes causes 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.  She ferverently believed that her mother’s soul existed in these petri dishes and test tubes from London to Sydney.  She 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 the 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.
I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:5*

Cell lines however 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 however 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.  We have learned a lot since the days of the Biblical writers.  For example, we now know that objects of different mass fall at the same rate.

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. 

Coming up next: Fetal Cell Lines and Vaccines

*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.

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