Fetal Tissues Research: An Orthodox Christian Approach

 

The Posture of Orthodox Morality

Far from a rule-based system that stems from theoretical principles and norms yielding a scientific rationality,[1] Orthodox ethics is done within the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that Orthodox ethical thinking is so communitarian as to exclude those outside Orthodoxy; St. Paul’s apologetics on Mars Hill very much exemplifies how the Orthodox are to engage the world. Ethics within the Church, however, places morality within the lifelong dynamic and progress of man’s salvation. “For in him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring’” (Acts 17:28, NKJV). In place of ethical rules, Orthodox Christians seek an ascetic life in Christ as received from the Scriptures and Orthodox Patristic tradition.

This posture is critical to note when engaging a topic such as fetal tissue research (FTR). It is simply impossible to discuss such a topic without unpacking some of the Orthodox practices and commitments that lead to, for instance, an initial tension over the term “fetal tissue research.” Such a descriptor is primarily scientifically progressive and outside the Orthodox lifeworld that sees no essential value in distinguishing pre-embryonic, embryonic, and fetal stages of life. Speaking against abortion, St. Basil the Great cautions that “with us there is no technical discussion of whether [the fetus] is or is not fully formed.”[2] The gift of life is mysterious, holistic, and sacred whenever it is given such that “fetal tissue research” should not imply: “fetus” as removed from a nascent, ensouled, and embodied person made in God’s image; “tissue” as neutral matter removed from a person’s body; or “research” as progressive techniques removed from care for a deceased person.

This is a posture of gratitude for the gift of life, and this must be our starting point. Nor does this starting point ignore the awareness we moderns have regarding the high number of fertilized ova that spontaneously pass through without implantation. Within God’s providence, our relatively recent awareness of that level of procreative detail does not fundamentally alter the course of mysterious life that is a gift. While science and medicine are affirmed within Orthodoxy, this affirmation is tempered or suspended by the higher commitment that God is the ultimate healer[3] and that our supreme hope belongs in him, not in science or medicine.

Within this holistic framework, it is clear why the Orthodox Church has always staunchly opposed any intervention that leads to the abortion of embryos and fetuses, and this extends to research technologies that contribute passively to our society’s acceptance of abortion. To develop this further in relation to FTR, we turn to the critical issue of abortion before concluding with observations on the integrity of matter and the body.

Abortion, Stem Cells, and Fetal Tissue Research

The Orthodox Church has spoken against human embryonic stem cell research, particularly since the late 1990s and early 2000s amidst the Bush and Obama administrations’ respective positions on embryonic stem cell research.[4] The Orthodox Church’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research is relevant to fetal tissues because tissues are organized cellular communities of cells co-joined to further a specific function; cells and tissues are linked via biological development. Even more importantly, however, is the role of abortion in retrieving both cells and tissues from a fetus’ body. Simply put, it is not possible for the Orthodox to consider fetal cells or tissues for research before considering the role of abortion in the technological harvesting of these bodily “parts.”

The Orthodox Church has always decried taking the life of a child by abortion. From the Didache 5:1–2, the command is given not to take a life by abortion, for “murderers of children, corrupters of God’s creation” are following “the Way of Death.”[5] Similarly, the Epistle of Barnabas teaches: “You shall not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shall you destroy it after it is born.”[6] In the first chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, the archangel Gabriel announces to the Theotokos: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). Thus the Church has received and celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation—singing “today is the beginning of our salvation”[7]—when Jesus Christ was incarnated as a zygote.

So much more could be unpacked via the annunciation of St. John to St. Elizabeth as well as the conception of the Theotokos. Again, the hymns for each of these three Great Feasts do not proclaim a “fertilized egg,” “zygote,” or “collection of tissues” but rather the mystery of salvation of the world from the one who cannot be contained yet is contained in a womb. Unlike the Latin tradition’s questions on ensoulment—and the possibility of some Christians condoning embryonic destruction and research as suggested by Anglican Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries in 2001[8]—St. Gregory of Nyssa expresses the Orthodox teaching that the body and soul are conceived synchronously:

No one with good sense would imagine that the origin of the soul is later and younger than the formation of the bodies . . . . soul and body have one and the same beginning. . . . We understand that a common transition into being takes place for the compound constituted from both soul and body. The one does not go before, nor the other come later.”[9]

In short, this moral truth—that abortion is a grave sin—must be our starting point when considering FTR. Some may counter this emphasis by noting that fetal tissue can be procured from naturally miscarried fetuses, hence opening a slight way to consider procuring fetal tissue outside elective abortion, but this seems naive. The more advantageous tissues for research would come from healthy fetuses, aborted electively. Hence, the distinction is possible, but to think in our current time that this distinction is commonly upheld as morally essential and that abortion is shunned when procuring fetal tissues is another matter entirely.

Addressing such a tension, Engelhardt notes that the “difficult and involved matter . . . [of] employing materials from dead embryos and fetuses” may be considered alongside the moral possibilities of using tissues and organs from “persons who die accidentally” or even were murdered.[10] Citing that “one can drink water from a well that was dug by unjustly forced labor,” Engelhardt describes what is morally possible before concluding that “great spiritual discernment will be needed, and any use of such materials must at the very least be approached penitentially as a concession to human weakness.”[11] Engelhardt states clearly that fetal tissues and organs are often obtained via “heinous means” and that any ensuing research “must not participate in, avoid condoning, encourage, or create scandal” in the heinous procurement.[12] Most certainly, Engelhardt has in mind the use of vaccines developed from human fetal cell lines. The cell lines HEK293 and PER.C6 stem from two fetuses aborted in about 1972 and 1985 respectively, and these leading cell lines received significant attention amidst development of the COVID-19 vaccines in 2020.[13]

In light of this difficulty, are Orthodox Christians to deduce that accepting modern vaccines is to participate in the sin of abortion? Surely, in a way, we must admit it is so, and yet to admit sin should not limit us solely to consideration of willful causes or legal categories of sin.[14] The Orthodox view of sin must admit the connection between vaccines and abortion, hence calling upon us to contest this sinful connection wherever possible. There are many options for vaccine research beyond use of fetal cells and tissues, and Orthodox Christians can and should support such research as a way to pursue health through vaccines not tainted by abortion. When facing questions that assume compromise from the start, we are called in every possible way to turn from concessions to human weakness to heed Lady Wisdom for whom “wickedness is an abomination to my lips” (Prov 8:8).

Integrity of the Body and Matter

A further consideration is the Orthodox emphasis on the integrity of body and all created matter: since persons are made in the image and likeness of God, how ought we to treat the materiality of the body? Orthodox Christians have long forbidden cremation, and instead the Orthodox funeral service celebrates the raising of Lazarus, the veneration of Jesus’ intact body by Joseph of Arimathea and the Myrrh-bearing Women, and the glorious Paschal mystery. Within Orthodoxy, these liturgical touchstones form the basis of a holistic anthropology whereby the “body” is inseparable from flesh (sarx), mind (nous), and spirit (pneuma). Far from neutral matter, bodies are honored as sacred matter and potential relics that may be preserved and venerated.

This posture sounds odd to modern ears so accustomed to body-soul dualism, to autonomous ethics of self-constructed bodies and more. But what if our view of the body is grounded in the reality of the resurrection (1 Thes 4:13–18), relics that heal (2 Kgs 13:20–22; Mark 5:27–29; Acts 19:11–12), and the profound beauty of the all-night vigil and parting kiss in the Orthodox funeral service? These are mystical rites befitting embodied creatures from the God who knows the age and name of each, and knows every man even from his mother’s womb.

Hence, when considering any scientific use of bodily tissues—or of organ donation, for that matter—the Orthodox must recall that the believer’s body has been anointed by the Holy Spirit in Chrismation and communed with the Holy Mysteries. The body is not personal property but is an embodied participation within the Body of Christ. These theological mysteries are not hyper-literalisms such that a martyr’s body destroyed in the flames is beyond the Resurrection, nor is one “deprived of an eye, or lame of a leg” barred from ordination (Apostolic Canon LXXVII).[15] The point is not to deny organ donation done out of love for others that does not destroy the person’s embodiment; rather, while remembering we are dust and to dust shall return (Eccl 12:7), our posture and aim is to maximalize in every way respect for human bodies, organs, and tissues as the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16–17, 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). At the least, respect for the body in a technological age does not embrace scientific progressivism at the loss of embodied, ascetic life within the Body of Christ.

The mystery of the incarnation must not be cut short. For the Orthodox, questions of modern techno-science are not best answered by moral possibilities of scraping past sin but rather by a posture of fleeing into the embrace of Wisdom, a pursuit that illumines us to see our bodies not as purportedly neutral matter but as embodied vessels of the God-man who took on flesh.

 

References


[1] Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, trans. Elizabeth Briere (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Press, 1984), 13.

[2] St. Basil the Great, “Canonical Letter 188,” in The Cambridge Edition of Early Christian Writings, Vol. 2, Practice, ed. Ellen Muehlberger, trans. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 147.

[3] St. Basil the Great, “The Long Rules,” in Ascetical Works, Vol. 9, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, trans. M. Monica Wagner (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1962), Question 155.

[4] Orthodox Church in American Holy Synod, “Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Perspective of Orthodox Christianity” (Syosset, NY: OCA Chancery, October 17, 2001), https://www.oca.org/holy-synod/statements/holy-synod/embryonic-stem-cell-research-in-the-perspective-of-orthodox-christianity; Council of Russian Bishops, The Basis of the Social Concept (Russian Orthodox Church, 2000), XII, Problems of Bioethics, https://old.mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/xii/.

[5] “The Didache,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Modern Translation of These Early Christian Writings: Barnabas, I & II Clement, The Didache, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, ed. Jack N. Sparks (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1978): 312.

[6] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans., “Epistle of Barnabas,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, & A. Cleveland Coxe, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885), chap. 19. Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight, www.newadvent.org/fathers/0124.htm.

[7] Tone 4 Troparion: “Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace. Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with You!” Great Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, Orthodox Church in America, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.oca.org/saints/troparia/2008/03/26; Luke 1:26–38.

[8] D. A. Jones, “The Human Embryo in the Christian Tradition: A Reconsideration,” in Journal of Medical Ethics 31, no. 21 (2005): 710–14, http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jme.2004.011593.

[9] St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. Catherine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002): 99–100.

[10] H. Tristram Engelhardt, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics (Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets and Zeitlinger, 2000): 261–62.

[11] Engelhardt, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, 261.

[12] Engelhardt, The Foundations of Christian Bioethics, 262.

[13] Meredith Wadman, “Abortion Opponents Protest COVID-19 Vaccines’ Use of Fetal Cells,” Science Magazine, June 5, 2020, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells.

[14] Ancestral sin is sickness that pervades our fallen world, and the Orthodox focus is not to categorize sin but rather to seek the therapy of life in Christ. The Orthodox focus is not towards a moral calculation of causality in sin rather than seeking in every possible way positively to seek full communion (theosis) with God (1 Pet 2:4).

[15] The Apostolic Canons, trans. Henry R. Percival (The Saint Pachomius Library, 1998), Canon LXXVII, http://www.voskrese.info/spl/aposcanon.html). “If anyone be deprived of an eye, or lame of a leg, but in other respects worthy of a bishopric, he may be ordained, for the defect of the body does not defile a man, but the pollution of his soul.”