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 Gods 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 bodys 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. 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. 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.
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 ones 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. However, others equally opposed to embryo
destruction may conclude differently.
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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