Religious and Ethical Perspectives on Stem Cell Research
A. The Moral Status of the Embryo
Different faith traditions have different beliefs regarding the moral status of the embryo. The Catholic perspective is the religious point of view that is perhaps the most strongly opposed to human embryonic stem cell research (“hESC”). Official Catholic doctrine holds that life begins at the moment that the sperm and egg unite, and that the human embryo is therefore a person entitled to the same rights and dignity as any other person. The destruction of an embryo, under this view, is the equivalent of the taking of a life. Catholic doctrine also opposes the creation of an embryo for purposes other than procreation, and is critical of embryos being used for research on the grounds that it treats human life as the mere means to an end.
Protestant opposition to hESC research has come from the Southern Baptist Convention and from fundamentalist Protestant denominations. These Christian churches emphasize a strict interpretation of biblical language, focusing on passages that suggest that God recognizes the pre-born. In addition, these denominations emphasize that embryonic stem cell research is incompatible with the Christian mandate to protect the most vulnerable members of society, a group which they believe includes the embryo. The National Association of Evangelicals has issued the following policy statement explaining its opposition to embryonic stem cell research:
“All humans, male and female, are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and, therefore, have intrinsic dignity that should be respected and honored. Indeed, the breath of life in all human beings is a gift from God (Genesis 2:7) and thus inherently holy. The NAE has pledged to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature. Thus, the NAE opposes all human cloning, including cloning human embryos for laboratory experimentation, as well as discrimination based on genetic identities. The NAE welcomes and supports medical research that uses stem cells from adult donors and other ethical avenues of research.”
In contrast, many mainline Protestant denominations have issued statements in support of embryonic stem cell research. One of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation was the embrace of the family as the basic unit of society, and this has found expression in a more accepting attitude towards non-procreative sexual relations between husband and wife than under Roman Catholicism. In the United States, many mainline Protestant denominations have accepted contraception and abortion as questions of child-bearing that are appropriately left to the individual conscience of the woman. These Christian denominations focus on implantation in the womb as a more significant event than fertilization in the formation of personhood; the development of the fetus is seen as a process whereby personhood is attained gradually. Protestant denominations that support embryonic stem cell research include the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.*
Jewish scholars also have been supportive of embryonic stem cell research. The traditions of Judaism recognize that personhood begins with the child’s birth, and not before. Therefore, Judaism does not accord the embryo a moral standing outside of the womb independent of the mother. All of the major Jewish denominations support medical research using hESC: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.** In addition, Islamic scholars have been supportive of embryonic stem cell research when it is conducted for purposes of curing disease.
Other faith traditions have taken no official position either in favor of or against embryonic stem cell research. Religious faiths that have not expressed an official position include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Hinduism , and the American Baptist Churches.
B. The Call to Heal the Sick
In addition to the moral status of the embryo, there is a separate faith tradition that is implicated by stem cell research. Many religious denominations teach that society has an affirmative obligation to heal the sick and to comfort those afflicted with disease. For example, the Jewish faith includes a calling to pursue medical research as an affirmative duty, one that is often cited by Jewish supporters of stem cell research. In addition, the more “liberal” Protestant denominations traditionally have embraced the benefits of scientific progress, and have accepted human reason and new discoveries as a force for good in the world. Persons from these Christian denominations who express support for embryonic stem cell research often point to Jesus’ miracles in healing the sick, and call on mankind to follow Jesus’s example.
Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth has summarized the challenge presented by these alternative moral perspectives on medical research:
“I argue that the free inquiry of research science can be understood as a sort of free speech. It is protected by the larger social polity, and it has to be responsive to the larger civic discourse, and to the meaning of the moral gesture of medicine. If medicine’s future lies in genetics knowledge, how will such terrain shape our view of the self? If medicine’s future lies in transgression of boundaries understood as natural, how will we reconstruct a robust sense of morality and of a connection to the narrative past?
We live in the world as we find it, but medicine is, in a sense, about the world as we imagine it could be. The task of the next century in medicine will be a complex and difficult freedom, for with emerging, transformative powers will come serious and vexing challenges. Creating a duty-based response in research as well as in medicine will be needed if the calling at the heart of medicine continues to guide the work of the physician. . . . .
Different faith traditions—Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish as well as Christian sensibilities—will need to be considered now, and in most of these, the duty to heal the sick and the need for free scientific inquiry will be the primary considerations in this work. For many whose religion now prohibits any use of the early embryo, no matter how it is created, much of this research will be impermissible. But others will argue that this opens the door to a critical research direction. Each member of the clergy and each lawmaker must think: how do we balance the many competing moral appeals?”
Much of the controversy surrounding stem cell research can be traced to the existence of distinctive moral perspectives among persons of different faith traditions.
C. Guidelines for Ethical Research
Because stem cell research uses human tissue, it raises many of the same ethical issues involved in any other type of medical research involving humans. Most, if not all, research institutions have adopted guidelines to ensure that embryonic stem cell research progresses in an ethical manner. For example, before engaging in embryonic stem cell research, scientists at the University of Wisconsin entered into contracts with the donors of blastocysts created for in vitro fertilization purposes, in order to establish a system of informed consent. These contracts also provided that only blastocysts that had previously been frozen would be made available for research and that no financial compensation would be paid to the donors. In addition, researchers at the University of Wisconsin sought and received approval from the university’s 24-person institutional review board, which concluded that the research could be conducted ethically after reviewing the work of national review boards in both the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as the report of the NIH’s Human Embryo Research Panel.
Ever since 2005, the National Academies of Sciences has maintained guidelines that call on all research institutions conducting embryonic stem cell research to establish an Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee (ESCROC). The ESCROC would be charged with the oversight of all issues related to the derivation and use of embryonic stem cells. The current guidelines also call for institutions to document the provenance of stem cell lines utilized for research in order to verify that they were obtained with informed consent, and to prohibit any payment to the donors of blastocysts beyond direct expenses. In addition, the guidelines state that no embryonic stem cell research should be conducted that involves the use of blastocysts beyond the 14th day of development, or after the formation of the primitive streak, whichever occurs first.
In July 2009, the NIH adopted new guidelines that state which embryonic stem cell lines currently are eligible to receive federal funding. The NIH guidelines largely parallel the National Academies of Sciences recommendations on the issues of informed consent and the prohibition of compensation. However, under the current NIH guidelines, federal funding is limited to hESC lines derived from blastocysts created for purposes of in vitro fertilization.
* Links to statements of Christian denominations supporting embryonic stem cell research:
Episcopal Chruch: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution.pl?resolution=2003-A014
Presbyterian Church (USA): www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2001/D/200114185.html
United Church of Christ: http://www.ucc.org/synod/resolutions/SUPPORT-FOR-FEDERALLY-FUNDED-RESEARCH-ON-EMBRYONIC-STEM-CELLS.pdf
United Methodist Church: http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=4&mid=6560
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations: http://www.uua.org/socialjustice/socialjustice/statements/8064.shtml
** Links to statements of Jewish denominations in support of embryonic stem cell research:
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association: http://www.therra.org/members/conv2005/Res-StemCell-2005.pdf