UK / Europe — 04 February 2005

Stem cell research promises to revolutionise medical treatment and has the potential to yield cures that have long eluded scientists and doctors. Whilst researchers seek to push the frontiers of its ground-breaking potential, a debate over the ethics of experimenting with human embryos may yet threaten to stifle its future. Dr Saqib Latif discusses an Islamic approach to a debate that has deeply divided secular societies.


Dr Clarke is a seventy three year old retired chemical engineer. For a PhD scientist with a distinguished career, he can barely recognise his wife nor remember her name and his comprehension of numbers has deteriorated such that he cannot count three consecutive figures backward. There are times when he wakes at night screaming and is unable to go back to sleep despite soothing gestures from Mrs Clarke. A week ago, she woke in the middle of the night to find him wandering in the street outside.

Alzheimer’s dementia makes up almost half of all cases of dementia and is characterised by the loss of many different nerve cells in the brain. Stem cell therapy holds the key to understanding this debilitating condition and developing a possible cure. The scientific community is in broad agreement that such therapy could also provide similar advances in many other serious conditions, from Parkinson’s disease to heart disease. But pivotal to the progress of stem cell research is the use embryos; specifically those surplus embryos that are generated during the IVF [in vitro fertilisation] cycle (supernumerary embryos). They are the main source for generating human embryonic cell lines (Thomson et al, 1998) and are employed in therapeutic cloning – a process with curative intent in which cells are cloned for specific human tissues using stem cells. The debate regarding the moral, legal and human status of these embryos has deeply divided liberal secular society and the discord thus created threatens to stifle scientific progress.

The various opinions regarding the use of stem cell research, or therapeutic cloning, appear incompatible and are not easily reconcilable by the application of the secular framework. On the one hand, right-to-life groups argue that an embryo becomes ‘human’, and should be treated as such, at the point of fertilisation, while on the other hand utilitarian views argue that the potential for public good should be weighed against the harm to infant embryos. They are views that have very little in common and have contributed to a lack of consensus on a way forward.

Scientists are not alone in attempting to grapple with these dilemmas; the liberal secular community as a whole is trying to do the same. Nancy Reagan, wife of former US President Ronald Reagan who suffered from Alzheimer’s dementia, first brought the issue to the attention of the US public after making her pro stem cell research views known. Celebrities such as the late actor Christopher Reeve have campaigned for its use whilst others such as the actor Mel Gibson have spoken out against it. Both the Canadian and US governments have banned therapeutic cloning on grounds that it is immoral to conduct experiments on a human embryo. In contrast, the British Parliament has approved stem cell research and in September 2004 granted Newcastle University the first British license to conduct therapeutic cloning.

The Science of Therapeutic Cloning

Stem cells exist naturally in the body and have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body to replace cells that are lost through natural processes. They divide just enough to maintain an organ’s healthy state. In cases where there is accidental damage or a disease they may not be able to divide fast enough to replace the injured tissue, leading to an eventual loss of organ function.

It is thought that by isolating stem cells and then manipulating their development into specific tissues they can be used to replace lost cells in the human body. Examples of this include the use of insulin-secreting cells in diabetes, nerve cells in strokes or liver cells to repair cirrhosis. Studies have demonstrated that stem cells can be made to differentiate into specific cell types and that these can then be successfully transplanted. Embryonic stem cells have the greatest potential due to their intrinsic ability to develop into a wide range of cell types.

The Ethical Debate

The current debate hinges on the status of the foetus. There are two opposing views with regard to the use of embryos.

One body of opinion states that the use of any embryo for research purposes is unethical and unacceptable on the grounds that an embryo should be afforded full human status from the moment of its creation. It is not “…morally preferable to end the life of an embryo in vivo than it is to do so in vitro” (Harris, 1985, cited in Brazier, 1992). The argument is justified on theological grounds and centres on ensoulment at fertilisation.

The other body of opinion states that the embryo deserves no particular moral attention whatsoever. Being a person, and not merely a human, is what gives rise to moral rights. Personhood is the ability to value your own existence and this gives an individual autonomy and therefore the right to live. Embryos are not able to have insight into their own existence and so by definition are not persons. They should not therefore be afforded the rights of a person (Harris, 1977, cited in Brazier 1992).

Furthermore, in pluralistic society an approach that bases itself on one particular view cannot be justified. Scientific freedom is a legal right. Childress (2001) states: “An ethical public policy in our pluralistic society has to respect diverse fundamental beliefs. And yet it must not be held hostage to any single view of embryonic life.”

The UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990) regulated the use of embryos in medical research in the UK. It allowed for the production and use of embryos. Arguing that the embryo is special as a potential human being, the act asserts that only embryos up to the age of fourteen days can be used in medical research as their status as persons is considered to be at a minimum. The judgement to use embryos is reconciled through utilitarian principles; potential benefits from research on an embryo outweigh the need to preserve it.

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