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Spiritual and Religious Contexts

Two broad and somewhat opposing themes characterize the response of most religious communities and traditions to the promising new biomedical technology that stem cell research represents. On the one hand, there is a moral commitment to healing and to relieving suffering caused by injury and illness. For biblically-based traditions, this commitment reflects a responsibility to serve as partners with God and stewards of God’s creation. Because of this commitment, most religious communities applaud the promise of stem cell research for enhancing scientific understanding of human development; for probing the cellular origins of cancer, diabetes, spinal cord injury, arthritis, and a host of other lethal or disabling illnesses and conditions; for developing more effective pharmacological drugs; and for pursuing successful tissue and organ transplant technology.

On the other hand, most traditions also warn that human beings are not God. Humans lack omniscience and our pursuits are often tainted by selfishness. With regard to stem cell research, this suggests the need to be cautious in pursuing the promise of this research and to strive to anticipate and minimize its potential harms and misuses. These include direct harms to the donors of the tissues and embryos from which stem cells may be derived and harms to future research subjects exposed to the unknown risks of stem cell implants. It also includes possible longer-term harms to society ranging from damage to our respect for the sanctity of human life to inequities resulting from the appropriation or privatization of a resource with great potential to benefit everyone.

Beyond these two broadly shared themes, there is significant disagreement among American religious communities over some of the specific moral issues raised by stem cell research. The most medically promising stem cells, with a capacity to differentiate into any of the human body’s cell types, are derived either from the inner cell mass of preimplantation embryos (ES cells) or from the gonadal tissue of aborted fetuses (EG cells). Both of these sources involve extraction and manipulation of cells from human embryos or fetuses. This raises issues of fundamental importance for some religious communities and can profoundly engage the conscience of Americans.

There are two principal areas of disagreement. One concerns the question of whether it is ever morally appropriate to destroy an embryo and whether the benefits of research provide a justification for doing so. At issue here is the question of whether the human embryo (or fetus in the case of EG cells) possesses significant moral status and must be protected from harm. Among those who answer this in the affirmative, a second question and some further disagreements arise. This is the question of whether researchers who have played no part in the destruction of an embryo or fetus may ethically utilize cellular materials produced in these ways. This is the question of when, if ever, it is morally permissible to cooperate with or benefit from what some persons regard as evil acts.

The first of these questions is among the most controversial in our society. Some religious communities believe the embryo or fetus is a full human being from the moment of conception, since it is genetically human and has the potential for development into a human individual."Donum Vitae"(Respect for Human Life), Origins 16: 697-711 (1987); Doerflinger, R., "Destructive Stem-Cell Research on Human Embryos." Origins 28: 769-73 (April 29, 1999); Grisez, G.,... Other traditions take a “developmental” view of personhood, believing that the early embryo or fetus only gradually becomes a full human being and thus may not be entitled to the same moral protections as it will later.This position includes a number of Catholic moral theologians; see, for example, Shannon, T.A., and Walter, A.B., "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo." Theological Studies 51:... Still others hold that while the embryo represents human life, that life may be taken for the sake of saving and preserving other lives in the future.Robertson, J., "Symbolic Issues in Embryo Research," Hastings Center Report 25 1: 37-38 (January-February 1995).

It is noteworthy that, despite these differences, all these positions can support research that does not involve the use of embryonic or fetal cells, that is to say, adult stem cell research. Opponents of abortion also support the use of fetal tissues when these result from stillbirths or miscarriages. They object only to the deliberate destruction of fetuses or embryos. Unfortunately, these zones of agreement do not include some promising areas of stem cell research, those involving the use of cells obtained from embryos (ES cells), or from deliberately aborted fetuses (EG cells). The fact that much basic research needs to be done in the area of human embryonic development suggests that both ES and EG cells will continue to play an important role in future research endeavors. Where germ cells are concerned, spontaneous abortions or stillbirths are a poor source of the tissue, both because the collection of the tissue requires substantial preparation, the critical time period is of short duration, and because, with spontaneous abortions particularly, this tissue is likely to suffer from genetic abnormalities. While continuing research efforts must be made to understand the biology of alternative sources of such cells, adult stem cells cannot entirely replace either EG and ES cells because much basic research needs to be done in the area of early human embryonic development for which EG and ES cells are required.

The zone of agreement is somewhat widened, however, when we recognize that some who adamantly oppose the destruction of embryos or fetuses can accept the view that research on the cellular materials remaining from such acts is not always unethical. These individuals take the view that not all acts benefiting from others’ wrongdoing are morally impermissible, so long as one is not in any way involved in the wrongdoing and one’s own acts do not foster, encourage, or lend support to it. For some who hold this moral position, no involvement with fetal or embryo destruction can meet this test, as all such involvement amounts to wrongful cooperation with evil.Smith, R.E., "The Principle of Cooperation in Catholic Thought." The Fetal Tissue Issue: Medical and Ethical Aspects, pp. 81-92. (Braintree, MA: Pope John Center, 1994). However, others equally opposed to embryo destruction may conclude differently.Ibid., pp. 90-92. Smith observes that only in cases where the researcher is intentionally and proximately involved in performing abortion is the prohibition against cooperating with evil absolute. In other...

Despite the possibility of achieving some consensus in these directions, important disagreements remain. Some who hold the view that full moral protection begins at conception will conclude that their religious and ethical perspective requires them to oppose any federal involvement in stem cell research so long as embryo or fetal destruction is involved, and they may even believe that all activities of this sort should be prohibited. Others, drawing on their own religious beliefs, will determine that stem cell research is not only ethically permitted, but required in the name of promoting human health.

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