Nation & World

Stem cells, through a religious lens

6 min read

Representatives of three of the world’s major religions tangled over the beginnings of human life, the disposal of surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, and the conduct of embryonic stem cell research Wednesday (March 14) at Harvard Divinity School.

Panelists at the event, representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, each briefly presented their faith’s teachings about the beginnings of human life and then embarked on a lively discussion about embryonic stem cell research.

The conservative Christian view that human life is created at conception contrasted with the view common among Jews that an embryo doesn’t become human until 40 days after conception, and the similar Muslim view that human life begins when the soul enters the developing baby sometime between 40 days and 120 days after conception.

The different beliefs in the timing of when a developing embryo becomes a human likely accounts for different levels of acceptance for embryonic stem cell research, which is supported in the Jewish community, is accepted in many Muslim countries, yet is opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations.

The panel featured Eric Cohen, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who presented the Jewish point of view; Omar Sultan Haque, a Muslim theologian at Harvard Medical School; John Davis, a Presbyterian minister and professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and Llewellyn Smith of the Andover/Newton Theological School and a minister with the United Church of Christ.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute faculty members Willy Lensch and Jerome Ritz also participated, providing clarification on scientific points.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute executive director Brock Reeve introduced the event, saying that exploring ethical matters related to stem cell research is an important part of the institute’s mission. Philip Clayton, visiting professor of science and religion at Harvard Divinity School, moderated the event.

Clayton said that the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research have made it one of the best-known and highest-stakes ethical debates of our times. Supporters, Clayton said, insist that the promise of stem cell research to cure debilitating diseases means the research must go forward. Opponents, however, say that the need to destroy human embryos as a source of stem cells makes the cost of that research too high.

Though Cohen presented the Jewish belief that 40 days after conception is a critical threshold for human life, he said he disagrees with that notion. He believes that medical advances that allow embryos to live outside the human body and scientific knowledge that 40 days after conception is not a significant time in human development have put humanity in a situation unanticipated by religious tradition.

Cohen, who has served as an adviser to President George Bush’s Council on Bioethics, said he believes human life must be respected from conception and warned of the dangers of defining a class of human beings as unworthy of life.

“I think we need to see the embryos as God sees us. In the eyes of God, we don’t seem like much,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s views were echoed in many ways by Davis, who said a person should be defined not as one who has developed consciousness already, but as one capable of developing consciousness. Cohen said that society’s view of who is a “person” has undergone considerable evolution over time, incorporating, for example, ethnic groups that were once excluded. He argued that it is time for it to evolve again and begin to include developing humans from the time of conception, which he argued are excluded, like other groups in history, because they don’t look like us.

Haque said that views on the subject in Islam are still evolving, given that the Koran doesn’t address the issue directly. The idea of “ensoulment,” he said, is usually thought to occur at either 40 days or 120 days, and is based on intuitive signs of life in the developing embryo. While there is a strong prohibition against reproductive cloning, with severe penalties in some countries, therapeutic cloning is generally tolerated.

Haque said he doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea of “ensoulment” but supports embryonic stem cell research, saying he doesn’t see why embryos created and frozen to help infertile couples in in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics should be discarded as medical waste. Despite arguments to the contrary, he said, even people who say an embryo should be treated as a full human life make distinctions by allowing abortions when the mother’s life is in danger.

“How is that possible if both lives are equal?” Haque said.

Smith said the United Church of Christ doesn’t object to research on blastocysts, as long as it’s conducted with respect and not done for reproductive purposes. But the church also believes there needs to be a robust debate on the issue. There are concerns from some parts of the church that the benefits of stem cell research be broadly shared, regardless of wealth or social status, and concern about unintended consequences, such as uncontrolled reproduction as in cancer cells.

“I think we have a true moral dilemma that our tradition and our scriptures do not fully address,” Smith said. “We’re a long way from a clear answer.”

When asked about common ground among their views, panelists said that all agree that human life must be respected and that disease must be treated, but they disagree about what constitutes a human life and at what cost must disease be treated.

Haque said people often talk about human life as if it is invaluable and to be protected at all costs, but belie those words in everyday decisions, such as those to go to war, that cost human lives.

Haque’s assertion prompted Cohen to suggest the discussants focus on stem cells and not military policy.

“Let’s keep the Iraq War out of this. Stem cells are hard enough,” Cohen said.

Cohen argued that because embryonic stem cell research has yet to fulfill its promise, the issue isn’t even as clear as trading blastocysts for a cure for disease.

“It’s not even a debate of [curing] one person who is sick versus an embryo. It destroys lots of embryos on the speculation that research will one day lead to a cure,” Cohen said.

Davis argued that the destruction of blastocysts may carry a societal cost, since we don’t know whether, if implanted, one could develop into an influential leader. Davis said he believes the issue is essentially a “line-drawing problem” and that the burden of drawing the appropriate line determining when a potential human life can be used to benefit others falls on those who would use it.

Cohen and Davis both acknowledged that the problem stems from our society’s acceptance of the practice of in vitro fertilization, which creates thousands of unused blastocysts in the process.

Cohen said he thinks the nation should have a renewed debate over IVF, focusing on alternate technologies at use in other nations that produce far fewer surplus embryos.