Monday, January 30, 2012

SB 1418: Christians, Stem Cells, and Low Calorie Soda

When I was young I used to love to watch the television show Connections. In each episode the host, James Burke, would walk you through a series of technological innovations showing how one innovation builds upon another as technology evolved from ages past to the present time. By the end of the show he would have shown that something like an improvement in candle wax was a necessary step in the development of missile technology or something similarly amazing. I was reminded of those unexpected technological connections when I began to look into Oklahoma senate bill 1418.

On January 18th Ralph Shortey, a Republican state senator in Oklahoma, proposed bill SB 1418 intended to prohibit the use of aborted fetuses in food production. The bill states that “No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.”

One may wonder why he felt such a bill was necessary since the use of human cells in food products is already illegal. Senator Shortey was quoted as saying “People are thinking that this has to do with fetuses being chopped up and put in our burritos. That’s not the case. It’s beyond that.” Senator Shortey has no evidence that any actual food products have been sold that were developed using fetuses. He is said to have proposed the bill based upon an online article he read about a pro-life group known as Children of God for Life who were trying to organize a boycott of PepsiCo. The group was trying to pressure PepsiCo over concerns that PepsiCo had partnered with a biotech company named Senomyx to develop a new low calorie sweetener who was using stem cells from an aborted fetus in its tests.

Senomyx and a number of their customers have denied that human cells or tissue has been used in any of their research and there is no evidence (that I can find) that cells or tissue have been directly used.  Although as written senator Shortey’s bill seems to address a problem that doesn’t exist it is not clear if his bill would address what Senomyx is actually doing. The issues are a bit more complicated than the blatant use of cells or tissues.

It seems that Senomyx has developed a process where embryonic stem cells are used to derive certain components used in chemical tests. From what I can understand they have used proteins ultimately derived from the stem cells of a healthy fetus aborted in the 1970’s (HEK 293) to develop chemical signatures for sweeteners. These signatures make it possible to compare the signature of a product under development to the signature of a known sweetener such as sugar to aid in product development (no batching and taste testing etc.).

Although not quite as sensational as the headlines indicate, the issues involved still raise a number of potential ethical questions. It is impossible to accurately predict or control the ripple effects of new technologies once they are unleashed. When arguing for stem cell research most advocates tended to focus attention on the medical potential of developing treatments for paraplegics and other similar uses. I highly doubt that many people would have been motivated to support it in order to have better tasting coffee and soda (though few things surprise me anymore). Of course, Christians find the use of human embryos for research to be a horrible thing but do the ethical considerations for human cells and tissue extend to single proteins and amino acids? If so, do they only do so when they are known to have derived from human cells? Does it matter if the fetus was intentionally aborted or should all fetal material be treated the same way?

As new technology challenges our established paradigms we must decide how to respond. I wonder how many Christians are even aware of the various places that this kind of technology is popping up. Had you asked me last week I would never have suspected that stem cells had any potential connection to artificial sweeteners. A number of well known food companies have a working relationship with Senomyx and we can be confident that there are other firms working along similar lines.
If Christians choose to avoid these products once made aware of them the question becomes how far to take that logic? To what extent are we responsible for investigating all the nuances of the goods and services that we use? Certainly many of the old technology products we use come from companies that support things that we strongly disagree with. Where is the line and what constitutes a reasonable effort to know if it has been crossed?

The problems involved in many of these new technologies are complex and it is very easy to oversimplify them. It is important that Christian thinkers and scientists who understand the technologies and their applications be at the forefront of educating the rest of us so that we are better prepared to examine the issues. The community of faith has a responsibility to bring ethical issues to light and to engage in the cultural dialogue about how to handle them. In order to do this we need to be properly informed.

This bill highlighted two things for me. First, it is really important that Christians are actively involved in the cultural dialogue around newer technologies, particularly those associated with the uniqueness of human life. Second, it is important that we take the time to understand those technologies so that we might be able to contribute to the development of policies that are consistent with our desire to defend the sanctity of life.

I appreciate senator Shortey’s willingness to defend the uniqueness of human life. I wish, however, that he had taken the time to fully investigate the matter rather than simply react to an internet article. Had he taken the time to do that I think he could have started an important conversation about where this technology is taking us. As it stands I doubt this bill will get anywhere and the conversations it will start are not likely to be the kind that will help to bring intelligent attention to the difficult ethical problems associated with this kind of emerging technology.


  1. Did he ever talk about the relationship of a horse's hind end to the Space Shuttle?

  2. Funny,

    I enjoyed that.