The rapidly developing field of stem cell research mobilises immense amounts of money in private and public grants. But it also raises deep ethical questions regarding health justice and the dignity of human life.
Stem cells have the ability to evolve into a diverse range of specialised cell types. They can be cultivated so as to produce cells identical to those of various tissues such as muscles or nerves. Research in this field is oriented mainly towards finding therapies for a number of diseases, from cancer to Parkinson's disease. Embryonic stem cell research requires the destruction of human embryos to obtain the cells.
Key ethical and social issues related to stem cell research were addressed by some 40 scientists, ethicists and theologians at an international consultation which met in Greece at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies from 9 to 11 November 2009. All participants left with their perspectives changed by encounters across nations, religions and cultures.
Dr Fabian Salazar Guerrero from Latin America challenged his listeners: "The problems discussed in this consultation have world dimensions. But those in the poorest regions of the world are excluded from discussions. This exclusion kills in a long agony".
The issue at stake here for those in the poorest regions of the world is one of health justice. About 90 percent of the world health budget is being spent on 10 percent of the world population.
The issue, put starkly, is this: why are so few resources poured into curing the most basic, preventable diseases, when so many resources are dedicated to stem cell research? This applies to all forms of this research, from adult to embryonic stem cells.
This problem is compounded by fears that unregulated stem cell treatment will proliferate in nations which do not have the legal and regulatory infrastructure to cope. The need for ova in embryonic stem cell research has given rise to a new form of exploitation of women.
Concerns for disparity in research spending matched a deep sense of responsibility. From a Jewish perspective, Professor Aviad Raz put it this way: "'Know before whom you stand, and to whom you are going to give account'…. The idea also comes from Moses standing before the burning bush in Midian. Stem cells can be our burning bush. We are forced to rethink humility, self awareness, and accountability in the wider context of sustainable economy, the environment, equity and disparities, and social justice. We are all in this boat together."
The ethical and social difficulties forced participants to consider more deeply their own religious traditions. They found common ground in an affirmation of life as gift from God. This means, in practice, listening carefully and with humility to those who are different. A sense of the importance of relationships, and the deep community spirit in those regions of the world marginalised from high-tech science, is a salutary reminder to secular Western individualistic societies.
The rhetoric of stem cell research, full of promises for increased longevity and enhanced human beings, seemed out of touch with countries struggling for survival. At the same time, some nations are lured into this technology by the prestige and the promise of lucrative rewards. Prof Un Hey Kim from Korea insisted that "The question of who will be the beneficiaries of stem cell research is crucial but not adequately addressed". Stem cell therapy may not be the most effective approach for many genetic diseases which are influenced by social and environmental factors.
Given that the human being is, according to the Christian tradition, created in the image of God, the special sanctity and dignity of the human person struck a common chord. However, not all Christians present were prepared to endorse the Roman Catholic and Orthodox view that a human being – with personal characteristics and a soul – is present in the fertilised ovum from the very moment of conception. Nonetheless, participants agreed with the strong intention to value human life as graced by God from the very beginning.
All human life is surrounded by a profound mystery of being. Rev. Prof. Vasileios Kalliakmanis suggested that while Christianity needs "holy rules", it also needs the "ecclesial economy" which allows for "a temporary divagation from them". Flexibility may be present in particular pastoral situations. This idea is rooted in a theological tradition of the Divine Economy, knowing God as one whose holiness is always tempered by love and mercy.
Overall the mood of the consultation was that of shared struggle. Stem cells, including the most recent technologies such as induced pluripotent stem cells, symbolise a thin end of a wedge. Other bio-engineering methods involving nanotechnology are already on the horizon.
Participants agreed that if the church is going to speak into this public sphere, then education is vital. We need determination to dig deep into the wisdom of religious traditions in order to inform complex decisions. In as much as practical wisdom means deliberation, judgment and action, all religious traditions cannot afford to stand still, for inactivity amounts to acquiescence.
(c) Celia Deane-Drummond is professor of Theology and the Biosciences at the University of Chester. An executive summary from the consultation in Volos can be found here: http://www.oikoumene.org/?id=7328