Moral Science: Reconciling Science and Religion in Stem Cell Research

It is no secret that
science and religion often come into conflict, but even in areas where the
strife seems most irreconcilable and
most steadfast in moral convictions, there is in fact great hope for
reconciliation. Stem cell research, especially embryonic stem cell (ESC) research,
is one such topic. The controversy arises because some religious groups oppose
ESC research, vouching instead for other sources of stem cells. Despite some
scientists’ claims that other sources of stem cells are less pluripotent and
thus less easily manipulated for the purpose of scientific research,
developments in research of other sources of stem cells prove to be very
promising. If stem cells are gathered from these other sources, the moral
dilemma surrounding ESC research becomes irrelevant and an issue of the past. Despite
the religious voices that oppose ESC research, the lack of opposition to stem
cell research involving cells gathered from other sources is an encouraging
sign that scientific goals and religious reservations can be reconciled, allowing
for a new era of harmony that brings about medical progress and reduces debate
in the field of stem cell research.

ESC
pluripotency allows for cells to differentiate into all the bones, organs, and
tissues in human beings. Because of their pluripotency, researchers can
encourage ESCs to develop into specific unipotent cells that can be cultured,
grown, and used to potentially treat illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s
disease, diabetes, and even cancer. These cells are highly valued by medical
researches because of the great possibility they have for generating cures to
these diseases. Subsequently, researching ESCs has been a focal point in
curative medicine in the past two decades.

Pluripotency
is not only found in ESCs, but also in umbilical cord, placenta, adult, and
animal stem cells, whose differentiation can be directed by scientists. Another
method to reach pluripotency is through induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
This process involves infusing viral proteins into any unipotent adult cell. Both
sources and methods allow scientists to derive cells that can be used in
researching cures to life-threatening diseases, but they do not provide equal
flexibility in their pluripotency. John A. Robertson, Professor of Law at The
University of Texas School of Law and current chair of the Ethics Committee of
the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, states in his article on the
history of ESC controversy that non-embryonic stem cells are not as pluripotent
as their embryonic counterparts (199). Richard Whittington of the University of
Pennsylvania notes that “Somatic cells undergo programmed senescence, and when
these cells are employed in animal cloning through the process of somatic
nuclear cell transfer, the animals have been found to have shorter survivals,”
and that the “use of viruses in gene transfer in humans has been associated
with a marked increase in the risk of cancer” (241). Because of the limitations
of non-embryonic stems cells and iPSCs, ESCs remain the most highly coveted
among those researching cures for diseases.

Scientists
are not the only ones who specially value ESCs. Some ethicists and religious
moral theologians who regard embryos as the very earliest stage of a fully
human existence also place a special value on them. All levels of human
development, they say – adulthood, adolescence, childhood, infancy, fetal stage
– are stages of development that begin with the fertilized egg and the embryo that
develops from that egg cell’s division. A few religious groups hold these
values and thus oppose ESC research, while others maintain that life begins at
a later developmental stage. Some even profess that the developmental stage is
irrelevant and encourage ESC research as long as it is used as a means to heal
those suffering from life-threatening or terminal illnesses. Because opposition
to ESC research most often expressed by religious groups, it is pertinent to
examine the beliefs of major religious groups in the United States in order to
determine the best solution to the controversy.

The Pew
Research Center lists the views of the largest religious groups in the United
States in their website for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Judaism
and the Presbyterian Church, perhaps the most permissive groups, support ESC
and adult stem cell research for medical and therapeutic purposes. The United
Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations support therapeutic cloning
involving spare ESCs that result from in vitro fertilization (IVF), while opposing
the creation of ESCs for the sole purpose of research. Buddhists are divided,
with some supporting because of the curative prospects, and others opposing
because it harms the embryos. Muslims are similarly divided, though the support
is not derived from the potential benefits, but rather because they believe an
embryo at such an early stage of development has no soul and that its destruction
is therefore irrelevant. The most restrictive religious groups, the Southern
Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church, oppose destroying human
embryos for research purposes, while encouraging the development of alternative
treatment that do not require human embryos to be destroyed. The United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, the governing body of Catholic Church in
America, writes: “The human embryo, from conception onward, is as much a living
member of the human species as any of us. As a matter of biological fact, this
new living organism has the full complement of human genes and is actively
expressing those genes to live and develop in a way that is unique to human
beings, setting the essential foundation for further development” (3). The
Catholic Church thus morally equates destroying embryos to abortion. The Roman
Catholic stance is perhaps the most restrictive because of its moral teachings,
and because the Catholic Church is so centrally regulated, there is little
chance of the Church position fragmenting. Aligning the science of stem cell
research with Roman Catholic morality would thus reduce most of, if not all of,
the religious opposition to stem cell research. But how realistic is this
alignment, and how much scientific possibility does it leave?

Perhaps
the greatest number of embryos used in research is made available from the
leftover embryos in the process of IVF. As Whittington notes, “There are no proscriptions
that would prevent a married couple from pursuing IVF and embryo transfer in
Judaism, Islam, or most Protestant denominations” (238). Roman Catholicism,
however, holds IVF as against the natural destiny of the couple seeking treatment
and therefore as immoral. Whittington provides a few ways around this final
hurdle. First: “Given the significant progress in reproductive technology and
IVF over the past ten years there is now an abundance of cryopreserved
late-stage embryos, which might serve as a source of ESCs. The only potential source
for embryos to be used in research is from frozen embryos that cannot be
transferred for gestation” (243). Just as there is no moral opposition by the
Catholic Church against the donation of organs from deceased persons (provided
consent of their loved ones), Whittington argues that these already-produced
and cryopreserved late-stage embryos are analogous to the organs of deceased
persons; the organs of the deceased person are no longer needed, just as the
embryos are no longer suitable for uterine implantation. Therefore, their
donation to ESC research should be encouraged and lauded.

Whittington
provides other arguments that are less easy to reconcile with Roman Catholic moral
theology. For example, he cites Nightlight Christian Adoptions as the most
prominent organization active in embryo adoption with its Snowflake Embryo
Adoption program, and reports that they dispose of approximately 11,000 embryos
per year (247). He seems to support the use of these embryos in stem cell
research, as they would be disposed of anyway. Similarly, he explains that in
some instances an embryo may lose viability for implantation due to the rupture
of the blastula while the embryonic cells within it are still viable for stem
cell research. However, it is other Christian denominations and not Roman
Catholicism that allow IVF, which always results in leftover embryos. Since the
Catholic Church opposes IVF to begin with, Whittington should be careful not to
suggest that it condone using those embryos that are leftover from IVF and are
no longer viable for uterine implantation simply because other denominations
support IVF. Realistically, however, the Catholic Church doesn’t necessarily
need to condone the action. People will continue to seek IVF treatment outside
of the Catholic faith (and even within in), which will inevitably result in
cryopreserved late-stage embryos unfit for implantation and gestation. The
possibility for life is already ended; donation to research should be
encouraged.

Whittington
provides powerful arguments for the continuation of ESC research in such
instances where embryos leftover from IVF treatments are no longer fit for
implantation and thus have no other use except research, and in instances where
the embryos are damaged by the rupture of the blastula, which leaves the
embryonic cells within still viable for research. He also believes that
“scientific progress can be made through the aggressive federal funding of
research on umbilical cord, placenta, adult, and animal stem cells, which do
not involve the same moral dilemma” (241). This would circumvent the
controversy surrounding federal funding for ESC research altogether by
providing promising alternatives.

Though
Robertson, on the other hand, attests to the reduced pluripotency of these cells,
this does not mean that funding should not be expanded. In fact, he professes
that ethical roadblocks lead scientists to invent around them, and credits President
Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for ESC research as having provided the
impetus for discovering more about iPSCs. He predicts that non-embryonic
pluripotent cells may eventually be made routinely available (191), and that research
in this field could provide “unprecedented cell sources for better
understanding the pathogenesis of diseases and for developing safer and more
effective drugs, and may even one day make it possible to perform cell
transplantation therapies for a wide variety of diseases and injuries, while
circumventing ethical issues” (202). Although he does not discuss specific
religious views, his position aligns well with Whittington’s analysis of
religious concern; according to Robertson’s positive outlook, Roman Catholicism
should not be seen as an inhibitor to scientific development in stem cell
research, but rather as a moral safeguard whose beliefs and encouragements for
research and research funding would quiet opposition from all major religious
groups in the United States and usher in a new era of medical development and
scientific and religious harmony.

Bibliography

Committee on
Pro-Life Activities. On Embryonic Stem
Cell Research
. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops, June 2008. Web.

“Religious Groups’
Official Positions on Stem Cell Research”. Pew Research Center’s Forum on
Religion & Public Life, July 2008. Web. 17 April 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Religious-Groups-Official-Positions-on-Stem-Cell-Research.aspx.

Robertson, John A. “Embryo Stem Cell Research:
Ten Years of Controversy.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 38.2
(2010): 191-203. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

Whittington,
Richard. “Embryonic Stem Cell Research: A Pragmatic Roman Catholic’s Defense.” Christian
Bioethics
. 18.3 (2012): 235-51. Web. 17 Apr. 2013.

This entry was posted in Papers on Stem Cell Research and Cloning. Bookmark the permalink.