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Stem cell research between religion and science

By: Bayynat editor

An analyses published by pewforum.com discussed a scientific and bioethical issue of stem cell research. The analysis provides an overview on the topic and explains the controversy that arose over it.

Embryonic stem cell research, which uses special cells found in three- to five-day-old human embryos to seek cures for a host of chronic diseases, has sparked a major moral and political debate in the United States. In the 10 years since University of Wisconsin scientists announced they had harvested potentially life-saving cells from surplus embryos donated by fertility clinics, the ethical dilemma presented by the studies has absorbed activists on both sides of the issue and has risen to the top of state and federal political agendas.

For patients and their families, embryonic stem cell research offers the hope of cures for chronic and debilitating conditions, such as juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries and blindness. For scientists, it represents a revolutionary path to discovering the causes and cures for many more human maladies. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, that is, they have the unique ability to develop into any of the 220 cell types in the human body. In addition to their versatility, embryonic stem cells are easier to grow in the laboratory than adult stem cells.

But many opponents, including some religious leaders, believe that stem cell research raises the same moral issues as abortion. Furthermore, opponents maintain that scientists have other promising ways of reaching the same goals, including non-controversial adult stem cell research of the research point out that there is no substitute at this time for research using embryos. In addition, they say, the research has resulted in the destruction of only a few hundred embryos, making it fundamentally different from abortion, which results in the destruction of millions of human embryos every year.

Different religious groups hold a wide variety of opinions on embryonic stem cell research. For the Catholic Church and many other Christian groups, life begins at conception, making the research tantamount to homicide because it results in the destruction of human embryos. "Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence," the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. Other religious groups do not take a position on the issue, and some, including many Jewish and more-liberal Christian groups, support embryonic stem cell research.

National polls indicate that a slim majority of Americans support the research. According to a 2007 national poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 51 percent say it is more important to conduct stem cell research that could result in new medical cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos. The same poll found that 35 percent say it is more important not to destroy embryos.

As the pace of the cutting-edge research quickens and the prospect for cures moves closer to reality, advocates on both sides of the debate see the possibility that, within a few years, scientists will find a way to harvest stem cells without destroying embryos. In late 2007, researchers in Wisconsin and Tokyo announced they had transformed ordinary human skin cells into those that appeared to have the same properties as embryonic stem cells. Religious leaders hailed the discovery as proof that the destruction of embryos is unnecessary. President George W. Bush, in his 2008 State of the Union address, said the groundbreaking new research "has the potential to move us beyond the divisive debates of the past."

But far from resolving the moral quandary, the highly publicized breakthrough has only intensified the discussion. Scientists around the world quickly cautioned that, although promising, the new research did not guarantee that adult stem cells could successfully be transformed into pluripotent cells. Many, including James Thomson, the researcher who led the team at the University of Wisconsin, publicly argued that embryonic stem cell research should continue.

In Europe, only the United Kingdom, Sweden and Belgium allow all forms of embryonic stem cell studies. On the other end of the spectrum, Austria, Ireland, Poland and Lithuania have outlawed all forms of stem cell research. Germany and Italy have criminalized the extraction of stem cells from human embryos, but scientists are permitted to conduct research on stem cells created elsewhere. Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands restrict scientists to producing stem cell lines from surplus embryos that fertility clinics plan to destroy.

Following this remarkable discovery, one cannot but inquire about the Islamic view on the matter to become aware of its lawful and unlawful aspects that are related directly to mans personal and public or social life. So, we would like to shed light on the opinion of the innovative Religious Authority, His Eminence, Sayyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlullah (ra) regarding the matter: We have no problems with such types of research, this is provided that is no negative impact; however, its basically just like the cloning issueHis Eminence comments on the operation of producing cloned human embryos to be used in medical treatment. He says: "Scientists have started talking about the possibility of using cloning in the field of medical treatment and transplanting organs". We say, scientifically speaking, that when the cell transforms into an embryo, so as there is a project of a human being in the making that has the organs of a normal person, even if it is at its primitive stage, we are not allowed to take any organ from this being, simply because this is similar to taking any organ from any other embryo or any other normal new born baby delivered in a normal way. This is not permissible. It is also impermissible to take any organ from any living thing, even if it is in its early life.

However, if the scientific progress necessitates that we take these elements that are found in a creature that has not become an embryo yet, we can take from it whatever we want before it is placed in the womb.

On the other hand, the Sayyed determines the time when the soul embraces the embryo's body. He says: "The Islamic jurisprudence used to believe that the soul embraces the embryo's body in the fourth month of pregnancy. However, some scientific theories say that this event happens in the seventh week.

Furthermore, some believe that reaching a certain scientific conclusion means that we have to get rid of many embryos during the experiments. His Eminence replies: "I do not agree with the killing of any living being in the form of an embryo, whether this embryo has been normally formed or has been cloned. However, it is allowed to destroy the fertilized ovum before it transforms into an embryo, when it is still outside the womb.

This is the Sayyed's comprehensive view towards the issue of the genetic modification that can be applied on the embryos, in order to cure them from some probable diseases, "there is no religious problem in curing the embryos at this stage of their life. This embryo can be given some genes that cure certain diseases or develop the gene itself."