If your Pockets are Feeling Empty…

It's 4th of July time. Independence Day is one of the big travel holidays, which means that gas prices have risen again. As of today, the price per gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the United States is $2.93. It will probably be over $3 a gallon soon. That's a lot of money.

I saw an article somewhere that said that in the summer of 2004, average U.S. gas prices were $1.70, which is $1.23 lower than they are today. Thinking about how high gas prices are, I decided to figure out how much more we spend now on gas than we did two years ago.

Let's say that you, as an average American, filled up your 12 gallon gas tank once a week for the 13 weeks of summer in 2004 (that's about how much gas I use):
  • 12 (gallons) x 13 (weeks) x $1.70 (2004 price) = $265.20
In the summer of 2006, with the same car, your results will be somewhat different:
  • 12 (gallons) x 13 (weeks) x $2.93 (2006 price) = $457.08
That's an extra $191.88 that you're spending in gas money this summer compared to two years ago. And that doesn't even take into account the fact that gasoline consumption has actually increased over the last two years as well, so you're probably spending even more extra than the $191.88. And if you're like me, you might complain about it, but you still pay it, because as a rich American, you can afford to, and you want to drive around your car whenever you want to.

Oh, and speaking of that $191.88, that surplus money that you're spending on gas, that's roughly what an average person in Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, or a dozen other countries would make over the course of that same 13 weeks. Total. Yikes.

We are incredibly blessed in this country, and we should take note of all that we have been given and be very thankful for it. James 1.17 says that God is the giver of every good gift, and we should be thankful to him for what he's given us. Let's do as much for him as we can with what we've been given.


A Disgrace to Fans Everywhere

As a rabid Braves fan, I am someone who hated the Yankees for quite a while. In recent years, I haven't hated them as much (probably because they haven't won a World Series in a while), though I do get really tired of hearing about them and the Red Sox all the time on ESPN.

I was watching the Yankees play the Braves the other day though, and realized that, while I no longer hate the Yankees as a team, I sure do hate their fans. Ever since he started playing for them a few years ago, Yankee fans have booed and maligned Alex Rodriguez, saying that he just doesn't "fit" in a Yankee uniform or just doesn't "seem" like a "true Yankee", despite the fact that he has been the AL MVP while in New York (the fact that NY hasn't won the World Series since he's been there is probably a large part of this).

The other day against the Braves, A-Rod got booed all game long: when he would come up to bat, when he would get out, and especially later in the game when he made an error. And all this to a guy who is easily one of the top five players in the game, a player any other team would love to have.

Then, in the bottom of the 10th, A-Rod comes up and hits a walk-off home run to win the game. Of course, the stands erupted, cheering on Rodriguez as if he was Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Jeter all rolled into one.

A-Rod circled the bases like a "true Yankee": all business-like, then waving to the crowd at the end. Personally, I would've been tempted to take more of a non-"true Yankee", Ted Williams approach and spit on all the fickle jerks who had hated me seconds before.


The Republic Of Cuba: An Economic Analysis


Cuba is a country which suffers from many economic problems that are deep-rooted, tied to ideology, and difficult to solve. As Cuba faces its current economic situation, its leaders will have to decide which is more important: improving the economic conditions of its citizens, or holding fast to its communist, anti-US identity.

Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and at the crossroads of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico, quickly became a strategic outpost in Spain’s New World empire.1 In the late 1700s, following the collapse of the sugar industry in Haiti, Cuba expanded sugar cane cultivation throughout the island, and sugar remains Cuba’s primary agricultural and export product even today. Cuba did not receive its independence from Spain until 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War and Spain gave up all of its claims in Cuba. A United States military government ruled Cuba until 1902, and even when the first Cuban-led government was established in 1902, its constitution included a provision that allowed the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs and to permanently lease a naval base on Guantánamo Bay. Over the next thirty years, the United States would take advantage of those rights, sending military forces into Cuba whenever problems arose.

In 1933, a revolutionary group led by Fulgencio Batista took control of the government, and Batista dominated the country as a dictator on and off for the next twenty years. The United States supported Batista’s government, and American investments in Cuba continued to expand during the 1940s and 1950s, with US interests eventually controlling over 90 percent of Cuba’s telephone and electrical services and nearly 40 percent of its sugar industry.

By the 1950s, many Cubans were unemployed and poverty stricken, and political conflict, strikes, and demonstrations riddled the country. This prompted Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, to begin a long period of revolution against Batista in 1953. Originally defeated and imprisoned, Castro and his followers returned in 1957, and began to wage guerilla warfare against the government. Continued economic problems led to growing support for the rebels, and by 1959, Batista fled the country. Castro became the prime minister of a new Cuban government whose primary goal was to reduce US influence on Cuban affairs. To this end, the Cuban government seized US-owned businesses, and relations between Cuba and the United States became very strained very quickly. As relations with the United States declined, Cuba further distanced itself from its geographic neighbor by developing stronger ties with the United States’ chief rival, the Soviet Union, and officially becoming a communist country itself. In 1960, after Cuba took over all remaining US business in Cuba and began receiving aid from the USSR, the United States placed an economic embargo on Cuba, and in 1961, the US and Cuba ended diplomatic relations.

Over the next thirty years, Cuba and the Soviet Union remained closely tied and the USSR continued to provide Cuba with military and economic assistance. In 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and subsequently withdrew aid and funding from Cuba, the Cuban economy suffered severe depression and near collapse. To ease this economic crisis, Cuba brought about limited capitalistic reforms that lessened state control over some sectors of the economy and also sought to improve relations with other countries, particularly Canada and Latin American and European nations in order to stimulate foreign investment. Cuba’s economy has improved since the early 1990s, but today, remains filled with problems.

SWOT Analysis: Strengths

Though often regarded as unsuccessful and oppressive, Cuba’s Communist revolution has produced some positive effects, especially in regards to education.2 Education is free and universal in Cuba, and Cuba has one of the highest proportions of university graduates in the world. All Cubans from the ages of 6 to 14 are required to go to school, illiteracy is practically nonexistent, and from preschools to graduate programs, Cuba provides an educational network which is the equal of any in Latin America. Though Cubans are often forced to endure shortages of books and learning materials, the average Cuban is sophisticated and highly knowledgeable.

Cuba rarely experiences temperatures below 40° F or above 100° F, which gives them an excellent climate for the production of sugar cane. Sugar cane is grown throughout the island, and Cuba is one of the world’s leading producers of sugar. Sugar production also dominates Cuban manufacturing, as there are more than 100 sugar mills throughout the country. Cuba’s semitropical climate also provides excellent growing conditions for coffee and tobacco, which are also very important export products for the Cuban economy. Cuban tobacco is considered to be of very high quality, and Cuban cigars are famous worldwide.

SWOT Analysis: Weaknesses

In addition to the emphasis on improved education, the Castro regime also renovated many hospitals and built many new hospitals and clinics throughout the country. Health care in Cuba is subsidized by the government, and every Cuban town and neighborhood has a clinic with a doctor and nurse living there, but there are no drugs, antibiotics, or diagnostic equipment to speak of. Because of this, Cuba focuses on holistic care, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. The government prohibits Cubans from purchasing any modern, manufactured medicines, and vitamin deficiencies, low-birth weight babies, tuberculosis, and typhoid are on the rise. Behind this prohibition is the fundamental communist value of equality, which in this situation means that “if something vital cannot be provided for all, in cannot be allowed for any.”2

The preeminence of the black market in Cuba presents another great weakness. Very basic economic activities, like the sale of milk, bread, housing, and transportation, are often performed illegally. According to The Washington Times, “the black market…accounts for 50 percent of all retail transactions.”3 Most of the materials available for purchase on Cuba’s black market are stolen or misappropriated from state warehouses and businesses. Corruption is also commonplace, as customs officials often confiscate imports (especially scarce products such as electronics) for themselves, and individuals frequently engage in insider deals with government contacts.4

Cuba is also plagued by inefficient labor, which is not surprising, since worker’s wages are not tied to their productivity. When 45 percent of the country’s most inefficient sugar mills were closed in 2002, Castro kept the laid-off workers on the state payroll. Since Cuban mill workers who are so inefficient as to be laid off are paid the same as those who are still working, incentive to work as efficiently as possible is completely undermined.

SWOT Analysis: Opportunities

Foreign investment, and particularly in the area of tourism, represents a key opportunity for the Cuban economy. In 2003, the tourist industry earned $2 billion,5 a huge figure, especially when you consider that Cuba’s total 2003 GDP was only $15 billion. Much of Cuba’s 2.6 percent economic growth rate6 can be attributed to the double digit growth in the tourism industry, which Economics Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez refereed to as “the most dynamic factor in our economy.”7 Tourism once seemed to lead the way toward a decentralized Cuban economy, with several European hotel firms investing in the island under joint ventures and enjoying the quasi-independence that the government allowed. Now, the government is studying how to re-centralize tourism, as Cuba takes a step back from this slight economic opening. In 2003, joint ventures were stripped of much of their control of day-to-day business, as government ministries have resumed power over decision making. Foreign investment has not yet been directly affected by these changes, but foreign businessmen say that investment is slowing, as decisions must be approved by more extensive layers of bureaucracy on a case-by-case basis.8

SWOT Analysis: Threats

The economic embargo which the United States has had on Cuba since October 1960 represents the single largest economic threat that Cuba faces. Along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US embargo has led to the stagnation and deterioration of the Cuban economy over the last several years. In 2000, the economic sanctions were lifted somewhat, as Congress enacted legislation which allowed the sale of US food and medicine to Cuba, but in 2004 the Bush administration limited family visits and remittances to Cuba in an effort to limit the supply of US dollars. Castro responded by withdrawing US dollars from the economy for the first time since they were legalized in 1993. This exchange in policy decisions is characteristic of the way the two nations have traded blows over the past forty years and leads to the irony of the US embargo: interestingly enough, while contributing to Cuba’s economic devastation, many experts believe that the US embargo has greatly helped Castro to stay in power, stirring up Cuban nationalism by enabling him to portray the underdog in a David vs. Goliath battle with the United States, and giving him an excuse for Cuba’s economic failure.


Cuba is riddled with many different problems, but they all stem from the overall problem of Castro’s communist regime and its policies.

Cuba’s inefficient labor force is one of the greatest problems caused by its communist policies. As mentioned earlier, workers are not really held accountable for their lack of production, and even when they are identified as being inefficient, they are not punished, as the state is committed to full employment and a national pay schedule. This makes the state reluctant to lay off employees, and even when they are laid off, as in the example of the sugar mills mentioned earlier, the displaced workers are kept on the state payroll. As long as workers can fall back on the crutch of a national pay schedule no matter what results they produce, there will be no reason for them to be productive.

Cuba faces another problem demographically. It is predicted that over the next two decades, Cuba’s population will decrease by 22 percent in the age groups ranging from (0-44), while the number of mature working-age citizens (45-64) and retirees (65+) will increase drastically, by 70 percent or more. These demographic changes will make it incredibly difficult for the government to continue to support the extensive social services (such as health care, education, and pensions for retirees) that have been one of the actual successes of the Revolution as the shrinking labor force must carry the social service burden not only for themselves, but for the rapidly expanding older population as well.

Cuba’s problems with the black market and corruption will continue as long as US sanctions and the communist government’s restrictions make many products, some of them basic necessities such as eggs and medicine, virtually unavailable. Unlike with many countries, Cuba’s black market is huge not because products are cheaper there, but because they are only there.

Alternative Courses Of Action

According to The Economist, “Cuba, out of necessity, has allowed capitalism into its socialist system. But it then keeps capitalism down…with a mass of complex and sometimes contradictory rules and regulations. Just when [investors] find out how things work, the rules change again.”3 At some point, Castro is going to have to decide what is more important: jump-starting the economy with increased capitalistic measures, or maintaining the tight centralized control that has been associated with his government over the past forty years.

Increasing capitalistic measures, specifically by allowing freer access to foreign investors and giving joint ventures and state enterprises more direct control over their businesses, including the ability to have some influence over wages and prices, would help to alleviate many of the problems which Cuba faces.

If workers were paid based on ability and productivity, rather than all being paid according to a national pay schedule, employees would have more incentive to work efficiently, and the current horrendous problems that Cuba experiences with inefficiency would be reduced drastically.

Also, the increased capitalist characteristics of the Cuban economy would provide a basis for improving relations with the United States, and perhaps eventually the lessening or lifting of the US trade embargo. While, as mentioned before, the US embargo helps Castro attain support from the Cuban people, it devastates the Cuban economy, and as long as it is in place, Cuba will continue to struggle. If the embargo were to be lifted, products of all sorts could flow freely into Cuba, eliminating the need for the black market by giving Cubans the opportunity to attain vital products such as food and medicine legitimately.

Finally, Cuba is in need of economic restructuring, as the current economy is too dependent on the tourism and sugar industries. A more diversified Cuban economy would enable the nation to continue to function if these two industries were to suffer.


Working to improve relations with the United States would provide Cuba with the potential for virtually unlimited gain. In the days before the Revolution, 65 percent of Cuban exports and 75 percent of Cuban imports were tied to US-Cuban trade. After the Revolution, the Soviet Union replaced the US as Cuba’s primary trading partner, but in the years following the fall of the USSR, Cuba has been scrambling to find trading partners to fill the void. The United States would be eager to trade with a Cuba that was less antagonistic toward America and capitalism in general.

Cuba is in desperate need of the money brought into the country through foreign investment, but its inconsistent policies regarding the rights of foreign investors threaten to greatly diminish the positive impact that foreign capital could have on its economy. The current trend has been for the government to loosen control over economic operations just long enough to encourage investment and get the economy flowing, and then suddenly cut back on this freedom in order to keep ultimate economic control firmly in government hands. In order to be truly successful in the long run, Cuba must continue to gradually loosen control over economic operations of joint ventures and state enterprises without suddenly curtailing foreign investment and the relatively free enterprise when it becomes popular. Foreign investment is vital for Cuba; it is essential that the government make somewhat of an effort to cater to the requirements of foreign investors who are used to having control over their business operations.

Sugar has been Cuba’s main product for hundreds of years, and will continue to be important, and tourism has largely been responsible for keeping the Cuban economy going over the past decade, but the economy must be based on more than these two industries. A hemispheric economic downturn and new worries about international terrorism have hit both of these industries over the past couple of years, and have illustrated the need for diversification.


It will be incredibly difficult for the current government to implement these necessary changes, as much of Cuba’s current identity is tied to its conflict with the United States and the fact that it has clung to communism despite the poor resulting economic conditions on the island. However, if Cuba truly wants to improve its economy, it must be willing to transform this identity.

Giving more economic control to joint ventures and state enterprises would serve as a catalyst for the Cuban economy. Enabling companies to set competitive wages and prices would motivate employees and businesses alike to be more productive, and would encourage foreign corporations to invest their capital in the Cuban economy.

During its close relationship with the USSR, Cuba focused on the production of sugar, which it exported to the Soviet Union at high prices, and relied on all kinds of Soviet imports in return which they received at low prices. This may have worked at the time, but it made Cuba incredibly dependent on both the USSR and its sugar industry. In recent years, the tourism industry has taken off, which has reduced some of the dependence on sugar, but Cuba needs to develop other key industries as well. Two promising options are oil and nickel production, both of which are on the rise in Cuba. An increase in oil production would be especially beneficial, as it would decrease Cuba’s dependence on expensive imported oil.

All of these changes would be helpful to the Cuban economy, but the greatest current barrier to a prosperous Cuba is the US trade embargo, and even with these other capitalist reforms, Cuba will continue to struggle as long as it remains an economic adversary of the world’s only superpower. With over forty years of antagonistic behavior toward one another, Cuba and the United States will not become best friends overnight. Implementing capitalist reforms will help, but the Castro administration will also have to ease up on anti-US rhetoric, and improve the current human rights situation within the country. The United States is by no means opposed to having better relations with Cuba, but will not get rid of its trade embargo as long as Castro remains openly opposed to America and its policies. Improving US-Cuban relations and hopefully lifting or easing the embargo will certainly be difficult, but the possible benefits make it worth the effort.


Despite Cuba’s long history, dating back to its discovery by Columbus in 1492, the Revolution of 1959 remains the most crucial and pivotal moment, and provides the basis of the identity and economy that Cuba possesses today.

The Revolution brought about numerous social reforms, the most successful of which is the excellent education system, which remains as one of Cuba’s greatest strengths. Cuba also possesses a very temperate tropical climate which encourages growth of key products such as sugar cane and tobacco. Unfortunately, Cuba also suffers from several economic problems, such as inefficiency in the labor force, a high level of corruption and black market activity, and a lack of goods available for purchase and consumption. Many of these problems are closely related to government policy.

Foreign investment, specifically through tourism, offers a great opportunity for Cuba to attain capital which can help to breathe life into its struggling economy. At the same time, a harsh US trade embargo greatly hampers the Cuban economy, and keeps it in a perpetual state of need.

In order to improve economic conditions in Cuba, it is necessary to implement a degree of capitalist reforms, specifically in reference to wage and price controls, to encourage productivity and decrease black market activity. Even more beneficial would be the improvement of relations with the United States and the possible cessation of the current embargo.

Cuba finds itself occupying a unique position, as the sworn adversary to US policy and the capitalist way of life, despite being located only 90 miles south of Florida. This position is made even more unique by the close historical ties that Cuba and the United States share. As Cuba faces the new century with aging leaders from a fading Revolution, the hope for economic progress in Cuba lies in reestablishing ties with the giant to the north that has influenced their history so much already.

1 Perez, Jr., Lous A. “Cuba.” World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: 2004.
2 “Cuba Climbing: People, Economy and Environment.” December 7, 2004.
3 Feulner, Jr., Edwin J., Miles, Marc. A, O’Grady, Mary Anastasia. 2004 Index of Economic Freedom. Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc.: 2004.
4 “A Legacy of Dysfunction: Cuba After Fidel.” RAND Corporation. December 7, 2004.
5 “Dollar replaced by ‘monopoly money’ in Cuba.” Economy News. December 7, 2004.
6 “Cuba.” CIA: The World Factbook. December 7, 2004.
7 Snow, Anita. “Cuba creeping toward economic recovery.” Miami Herald. December 7, 2004.
8 “Tourists: by the left, march.” Economist.com. December 7, 2004.
9 “Cuba.” CIA: The World Factbook. December 7, 2004.
10 Snow, Anita. “Cuba creeping toward economic recovery.” Miami Herald. December 7, 2004.

Other resources which were not cited but which were consulted during the writing of this paper:
Bussey, Jane. “Cuba: Dollar decision a sign of distress.” Miami Herald. December 7, 2004.
Mesa-Lago, Carmelo, and Perez-Lopez, Jorge. “Cubs’s Economy: Twilight of an Era.” Transition Newsletter. December 7, 2004.

Abortion, A Four-Part Series

This is a four-part essay I did back in November and December 2008 to describe my views on abortion.

Click on the links below to read the separate parts.

Abortion, Part 1: Introduction And Disclaimer,” November 3, 2008.
Abortion, Part 2: What Is It?,” November 4, 2008.
Abortion, Part 3: How I Vote,” November 21, 2008.
Abortion, Part 4: Why Abortion Is A Deal Breaker,” December 9, 2008.

What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? A Four-Part Series

A four part series deal with five common (and often legitimate) criticisms of youth ministers. Click on the links below to read the separate parts.

What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Part 1,” February 15, 2012.
What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Part 2,” February 17, 2012.
What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Part 3,” February 22, 2012.
What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Summary and Conclusions,” February 29, 2012.


Most of what I write for The Doc File is done without a lot of forethought, and then after it’s published, I don’t think about it again.

Occasionally though, I write something that I like, and that’s the purpose of this section. Below are links to some of my favorite posts from a span of several years, as well as some longer writings (which may or may not have originally been developed for this blog):

The Best of The Doc File
Jesus: God in our Neighborhood, March 25, 2013.
Daring and Determination in the Christian Walk, March 6, 2013.
Thoughts on Legacy, Cap Anson, and Enoch, September 4, 2012.
“Liberal” and “Conservative” as Religious Labels, August 20, 2012.
Is God On Our Side?, August 22, 2012.
The Example of Josiah: Serving God Without Hope of Reward, May 29, 2012.
Lot, His Daughters, and Us: When Cultural Values are Taken to the Extreme, April 2, 2012.
President Obama, Band of Brothers, and Respect, February 7, 2012.
Is All Sin the Same in God’s Eyes?, January 20, 2012.
What Does Satan Look Like?, August 30, 2010.
Be More Like Thomas, October 10, 2009.
Gideon’s 300, April 8, 2009.
No Longer Worthy, March 3, 2009.
The Compassion of Christ, October 10, 2008.
“You Did Well that it was in Your Heart”, August 19, 2008.
Determined to be the Best, July 31, 2008.
“The Kid” at 600, June 11, 2008.
The Best Player in the Country, December 8, 2007.
Gratitude: The Men of Jabesh-Gilead, November 19, 2007.
Gratitude: Enzo the Baker, November 13, 2007.
Conflicting Natures, May 30, 2007.
Guts, April 15, 2007.
34 Years Ago Today, December 31, 2006.
He Was Right On Time, December 20, 2006.

Longer Writings
What’s Wrong with Youth Ministers? A Four-Part Series, February 2012.
Robert Graham and the Creation of Arkansas College, December 30, 2011.
The Reign and Death of King Josiah, June 16, 2011.
The Role and Character of Elihu in the Book of Job, December 3, 2010.
He Came To Jesus By Night: The Character of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, August 23, 2010.
Can The Saved Be Lost? A Study Of Hebrews 6.4-6, April 16, 2010.
Abortion, A Four-Part Series, November-December, 2008.
La Vida y Obra de Jerónimo López Mozo, April 2005.
The Republic Of Cuba: An Economic Analysis, December 9, 2004.
The Ethical Dilemma Behind Stem Cell Research, December 1, 2003.

The Ethical Dilemma Behind Stem Cell Research

In recent years, scientific breakthroughs have opened up possibilities of revolutionary medical treatment that hold promise for treating a variety of medical conditions. But, just as these new technologies raise hopes for cures, they also raise complicated ethical concerns as well. One of these new technologies involves the research of embryonic stem cells, which over the past couple of years has been thrust into the national spotlight and hotly debated on both sides. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research point to it as the source of potential cures for devastating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, and severe spinal cord injuries. Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research believe that no potential medical advancement can justify the destruction of human embryos. While developing cures to these severe medical conditions would potentially be a wonderful benefit to the lives of millions, it does not justify the termination of human embryos, especially considering the possibility of alternative measures which could be equally effective without damaging or destroying anyone.

In order to understand the debate over stem cell research, it is first necessary to understand a little bit about stem cells themselves. In simple terms, stem cells are basically “blank cells that potentially can be turned into any type of body tissue”.1 When stem cells divide, one of the resulting cells becomes a new, more specialized type of cell, while the other becomes an exact copy of the original stem cell, and replaces it. Embryonic stem cells are the very earliest stem cells which derive immediately from the fertilized egg. All of the different tissues of the body develop out of these first few stem cells, which are for this reason considered to be “totipotent” —totally potent.2 As the process of cell division continues, molecular signals begin to turn genetic switches on and off within the stem cells, causing the “daughter” cells from the successive divisions to be more and more specialized in function and thus, to gradually lose their potential for becoming any type of cell.3 This cell differentiation and specialization lead eventually to all of the different specialized cells of the body, as well as the different populations of “adult” stem cells within the body. Adult stem cells are those which have already gone partially down the road to specialization and have lost some of their potential for creating a wide range of cells. For example, all of the cells of the brain derive from a population of neural stem cells. Each time one of these neural stem cells divides, it produces a brain cell and a copy of itself. Scientists are uncertain as to just how many of these adult stem cell populations, each of which is responsible for forming a different subset of adult tissues, exist.2

While scientists have understood the existence of embryonic stem cells for some time, they have only recently become aware of their potential medical applications. About fifteen years ago, scientists discovered that they could disrupt the normal connections of the fertilized egg, causing the cells to “fall apart into a single cell suspension that could be maintained in culture.”2 These cells, no longer part of any developing embryo, continue to divide indefinitely in culture, and are termed embryonic stem cell “lines.” These stem cell lines can very quickly produce vast numbers of cells. However, in culture, without direction from any molecular blueprint, they produce specialized cells haphazardly, forming teratomas, chaotic lumps of tissue comprised of a combination of adult cell types such as skin, bone, and muscle. This discovery would have been unimpressive, had it not also been discovered soon after that these same stem cell lines could produce mature cell types in culture in an organized manner if provided with the proper type of molecular signal. Discovering the exact signals that initiate the formation of specific cell types has been a difficult and painstaking process, and is still ongoing. Despite this, the scientific community remains excited about the cultured cells’ ability to rapidly produce enormous numbers of cells because it is widely believed that cultured embryonic stem cells would still be totipotent, and would be able to produce all of the various mature cell types in the body, if only given the proper molecular signals.2

The potential medical value of being able to induce the development of specific types of mature cells is profound. Scientists predict that stem cells could aid in the treatment of a plethora of diseases and medical conditions, including Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, severe spinal cord injuries, and others. Although the different treatments would be very complicated in practice, they are very simple and similar in theory. Basically, the doctor would take a stem cell, use the proper molecular signal to convert it into a specific type of adult cell, and inject it into the damaged area where the converted stem cells could then help to repair the damaged tissues. Whether replacing malfunctioning brain cells that cause Parkinson’s Disease, damaged cells in the spine which cause paralysis, or heart cells damaged by a heart attack, treatment with stem cells could revolutionize medical practice.1

From the amount of hype and excitement surrounding embryonic stem cell research, one might think that these stem cell replacement procedures were commonplace, and that many are already well on their way to a cure. However, Elizabeth Cohen, a medical correspondent for CNN emphasizes, “Let’s make one thing clear: stem cells at this point have not helped a single person,”1 and Maureen L. Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah suggests that the amazing medical advances hoped for by embryonic stem cell researchers are by no means a sure thing.2 Condic proposes three scientific arguments against the use of embryonic stem cells as a treatment for injury or disease. In the first place, there are serious immunological issues involved whenever cells generated by one human being are placed into the body of another. Just as problems arise when a person receives an organ transplant, so they would with the injection of stem cells produced outside of that person’s body. Eventually, such transplanted tissues and cells are targeted and destroyed by the subject’s immune system, unless the transplanted material is of a perfect genetic match that only an identical twin can provide. Condic says that “stem cell transplants…would not buy you a ‘cure’, they would merely buy you time,” as eventually, the supposed miracle-working stem cells would be attacked by the patient’s immune system. Scientists have proposed some solutions to the problem, but these, according to Condic, at this stage are still scientifically unrealistic, and thus, no solution at all. The second problem with the use of embryonic stem cells arises from the difficulty in discovering the specific molecular signal necessary to bring about the formation of a desired cell. Not all of these molecular signals are chemicals which can easily be introduced into the cultured petri dishes where embryonic stem cell lines reside. Instead, many are structural or mechanical factors specifically found in the intricate environment of a naturally growing embryo. Currently, experimental scientists are not able to reproduce all of these factors, such as mechanical tension or electric fields, in a petri dish.2 According to Dr. David Anderson, a noted stem cell researcher,
“What seems lost in the current debates [about stem cell research] is a sense of how difficult it really is, in practice, to get stem cells to do what you want them to.”4
It is very possible that even with “patience, dedication, and financing to support the work, we will never be able to replicate in a culture dish the nonmolecular factors necessary to get embryonic stem cells to do what we want them to.”2 Condic goes on to point out that failure to replicate all of the factors necessary for proper embryonic stem cell differentiation could lead to the development of cells which appear normal (based on the limited knowledge scientists have of exactly what a “normal” cell is) and are used for treatment, but turn out to be quite abnormal, lead to potentially serious side effects later on, and leave the patient in worse shape than before the treatment. The final scientific problem with using human embryonic stem cells is based on sound and accepted scientific practice: there simply has not been enough evidence gathered from experiments with animals to justify attempting similar procedures with humans. According to Condic,
“To date there is no evidence that cells generated from embryonic stem cells can be safely transplanted back into adult animals to restore the function of damaged or diseased adult tissues.”
Until such evidence is produced based on experiments with animals, it goes against common scientific and medical practice to go ahead and begin experiments on human beings (or in this case, with human embryos).2

The argument in favor of embryonic stem cell research is also weakened by the promise of what is considered by many to be a scientifically less risky and ethically less controversial alternative: adult stem cell research. Though the study of adult stem cells is not as advanced as that of embryonic stem cells, scientists have made much progress with them in the past few years. Adult stem cells can be taken from patient biopsies, grown in culture and made to develop into a wide variety of mature types of cells. Using adult stem cells would completely bypass the immunological problems caused by the use of embryonic stem cells; since the adult stem cells would actually come from the patient, there would be no issue of “matching” the stem cells to the patient. The main concern with using adult stem cells is that scientists don’t know just how many different mature cell types a single adult stem cell population can generate.2 Dr. Anderson observes,
“Some experiments suggest these [adult] stem cells have the potential to make mid-career switches, given the right environment, but in most cases this is far from conclusive.”4
This characteristic is not unique to adult stem cells however. As was already noted, it is extremely difficult to induce even embryonic stem cells to follow the “career path” that you would like them to. In fact, in this regard, adult stem cells have an advantage: whereas embryonic stem cells must be fully converted into the desired specialized cell before it could be used for treatment, an adult stem cell is already partially specialized. Therefore, with an adult stem cell, there are fewer genetic buttons to push before it becomes what you want. And when it comes to medical utility, the “limits” of adult stem cells are largely irrelevant. As Condic points out, “If a patient with heart disease can be cured using adult cardiac stem cells, the fact that these “heart-restricted” stem cells do not generate kidneys is not a problem for the patient.”2

Virtually all of the debate on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research centers around the same question that makes abortion such an inflammatory issue: at what point does a person actually become a person? Supporters of embryonic stem cell research believe that such research is absolutely essential, because it could potentially help millions without hurting anyone, since to them, a human embryo (or at least a human embryo growing outside of the mother’s womb) is not a person, but simply a living, growing mass of tissues. Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research on moral or ethical grounds believe that no potential medical benefit can justify the destruction of human embryos, an act which, to them, would constitute murder, since they consider a human embryo to be a person.1

Those in favor of embryonic stem cell research are agreed that the embryos from which embryonic stem cells are derived are not people, but they disagree at what point personhood is actually achieved. Some say that a fetus becomes an actual person at the point that it is capable of living outside of the mother’s womb,5 but this definition seems unacceptable, since the age at which an infant can live outside the mother is directly related to medical capabilities. With the great medical advancement in being able to care for premature babies, by this argument, fetuses become people at an earlier age now than they did a hundred years ago, when a baby born weeks early was sure to die. And in the same sense, personhood is achieved in the United States earlier than in third-world countries because here we have the medical technology to care for premature babies. Surely the argument that a fetus become a person when it is capable of living without the mother is a weak one. Indeed, even after a baby is born, and no longer needs the protection of the mother’s womb, it still is utterly helpless, and needs complete care, so one could argue that as a newborn infant, or even as a small child, personhood is not achieved because it is still dependent on the care of others. Others say that a human embryo does constitute a person, but only if it resides in the mother’s womb, where it has the ability to mature into a fetus and eventually into a newborn baby, and that the embryos which are used in stem cell research, since they will never be implanted and consequently grow into babies, are not people.5 Condic argues that this view is also unacceptable, because it equates developmental ability with human life and worth. In Western culture, basic human rights are not parceled out on the basis of performance or ability, and Condic points out that
“Unless we are willing to assign personhood proportionate to ability (young children, for example, might only be 20 percent human, while people with myopia, 95 percent), the limited abilities of prenatal humans are irrelevant to their status of human beings.”5
The eminent ethicist Dr. Joseph Fletcher proposes a “profile of man” which lists twenty characteristics that one must possess in order to be human including a minimum intelligence, the capability to relate to others, and the ability to communicate.6 The problems with this view are obvious and numerous: is one person less human than another because he is not as smart, or because he has trouble forming relationships with others? Was Hellen Keller, a source of admiration and inspiration for millions, subhuman before she learned how to communicate? Such a profile seems entirely subjective and insufficient to determine one’s personhood. Some argue from a Biblical standpoint that a person’s life begins at birth. Genesis 2.7 says, “Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Some suggest that this verse implies that a person’s life begins at birth, when he draws his first breath. However, the word translated “breath of life” in this verse is the Hebrew word nephesh, a word which is usually translated “soul” or “life.”7 Besides, Adam was a special case, and can’t always be used to infer general principles of human life. After all, the Bible indicates that Adam was never a baby at all, but that he was full-grown when created.

Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds believe that human embryos are essentially people, and support this view in a number of ways. Condic believes that the definition of life is both scientific and objective, and suggests that we can determine when a person’s life begins by observing when it ends. According to Condic,
“Death occurs when the body ceases to act in a coordinated manner to support the continued healthy functions of all bodily organs.”
Life doesn’t end when a person stops breathing, or the heart stops beating, as science has now given us the ability to resuscitate people at times, or when every last cell has ceased to live, as cellular life may continue for some time following the cessation of the body’s ability to act as an integrated whole. So, what does the nature of death tell us about the beginning of life? According to Condic,
“From the earliest stages of development, human embryos clearly function as organisms. Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”5
There are also numerous Biblical passages that suggest that a person’s life begins at conception. First, in Jeremiah 1.5, God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This passage implies that Jeremiah was a person whom God had already singled out for a specific purpose even before he was born. A second argument comes from the book of Luke, when Mary, pregnant with the baby Jesus, goes to visit Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. In Luke 1.44, Elizabeth, speaking to Mary, says, “…When the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.” That the unborn John the Baptist was able to recognize the unborn Jesus indicates that the power of the Holy Spirit was involved, but also indicates that both were already people, and not merely large collections of cells awaiting the receipt of personhood upon birth. Also, the Bible makes no distinction in terms when referring to a baby before and after birth: the word translated “baby” in this passage is the Greek word brephos, a word used in the Bible to refer to unborn infants, newborn babies, and young children alike.7 Finally, James 2.26 states that “…the body without the spirit is dead….” If the body is dead without the spirit, then it follows that the body must have the spirit in order for it to be alive. There is no argument as to whether or not an unborn fetus is alive; that is universally accepted. The argument comes over whether or not a living fetus is a person. But, since an unborn fetus is alive, according to the Bible it must have a spirit. And since it is alive and has a spirit, how can we deny that it is a person?

The arguments that suggest that personhood begins at conception are more objective and convincing than those which suggest that it begins at any other time, and therefore, human embryos should be considered to be fully human and not destroyed during research, no matter how beneficial the research might potentially be. The more time that is spent in the area of adult stem cell research, the more it appears to be a very promising field of study, one which could potentially provide the same benefits which science is hoping to achieve from embryonic stem cell research, without the destruction of a single human life.

1 Cohen, Elizabeth, “Ethics of Stem Cell Research.” Online Interview, 18 July, 2001.
2 Condic, Maureen L. “The Basics About Stem Cells.” First Things. January 2002: 30-34.
3 Lewis, Ricki. Human Genetics, Concepts and Applications. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
4 Anderson, David J. “The Alchemy of Stem Cell Research” The New York Times. 15 July, 2001.
5 Condic, Maureen L. “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End.” First Things. May 2003:50-54.
6 Fletcher, Joseph. Humanhood: Essays In Biomedical Ethics. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979.
7 Hamel, Ken, software dev. Online Bible. Version 3.0.1, 2001.

Other resources which were not cited but which were consulted during the writing of this paper:

–Bush, George W. “Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research,” Speech at The Bush Ranch, Crawford, TX 9 August, 2001 .
–Condic, Maureen L. “Stem Cells and False Hopes.” First Things. August/September 2002: 21-22.
–Haas, John. “Human Life on Ice.” Touchstone. January/February 2003: 28-32.
–Kahn, Jeffrey P. “Embryonic Ethics.” 1 June, 1999.
–Kahn, Jeffrey P. “The Politics of Stem Cell Research: Looking for Middle Ground in a Minefield.” 25 June, 2001.
–Kieffer, George H. Bioethics: A Textbook of Issues. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979.
–Whedon, Marie Bakitas, & Wujcik, Debra. Blood and Marrow Stem Cell Transplantation. Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1997.

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