Science helps religion in stem cell debates

December 12, 2007

A microscopic view of undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells.Science and religion are sometimes portrayed as adversaries, especially by the “new atheists“, but the real picture has always been more complex. The latest breakthrough in stem cell research shows how quickly opposing sides can become allies. On Nov. 20, two research teams announced they had transformed ordinary skin cells into stem cells without destroying human embryos in the process. That meant that scientists could solve an ethical dilemma they had effectively created when they began using human embryos to produce stem cells.

Religious groups critical of embryonic stem cell research immediately hailed the breakthrough as an advance that opened the door to ethnical use of these potential wonder cells. They have now begun to use it as a welcome argument to bolster their positions in disputes on the issue. This must be happening in quite a few places, but here are two examples that show how science is helping religion in this case.

In Germany, the Roman Catholic Church has severely criticised the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for agreeing to loosen tight restrictions on embryonic stem cell research there. The law bars German scientists from working on stem cell lines developed after January 1, 2002. Researchers say this is hampering their work and want the cut-off date to be moved up to 2007.

Thai doctor with vials of stem cells cultivated from patient’s blood, Bangkok Heart Hospital, 19 Dec 2005When the CDU agreed to this last week, two outspoken Catholic cardinals, Joachim Meisner of Cologne and Karl Lehmann of Mainz, condemned this as a betrayal of the Christian principles the party’s name claimed to represent. Meisner was especially critical of Research Minister Annette Schavan, a Catholic. He said the CDU decision was baffling, coming as it did “when science is opening up perspectives that present no ethical problems.”

Lehmann issued a statement as head of the German Bishops’ Conference: “The notable new successes in adult stem cell research and the reprogramming of cells are an additional argument against expanding embryonic stem cell research … so we call for a significant restructuring of European and German research funding from embryonic to adult stem cell research.”

In Belgium, the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) thinks the breakthrough will help it keep its official Catholic status endangered by its stem cell research. The Vatican has been quietly investigating the university’s fertility centre, which does embryonic stem cell research that is firmly opposed by Catholic teaching. The university, with the support of Brussels Cardinal Godfried Danneels, has been arguing it needed to continue that work until research into adult stem cells — which it also does — finds an ethical way to produce them. No steps have been taken, but no compromise seemed possible. If the Vatican stripped KUL of its Catholic status, it could lose many Catholic students who study theology there.

“This reduces the bones of contention with Rome,” said KUL Vice-rector Mark Waer. “If these insights are confirmed, at some point it shouldn’t be necessary anymore to experiment with embryos.”

Cardinal Danneels agreed: “This is joyous news that can bring a turnaround on an important ethical question, the manipulation of the embryo. I’m very happy about this.” He also told the weekly Tertio that he always thought “the Sensoji Temple Pagoda in Tokyo, 2 Oct. 2003embryo problem might solve itself. Hasn’t Leuven been working all this time researching how equally good results could be reached with adult stem cells?”

There have been articles reporting that Asian laboratories had an advantage over those in countries with Christian traditions because Eastern religions had fewer qualms about using human embryos. The New York Times had a feature on Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, one of the researchers pioneering the new technique. He gave no religious or philosophical reason for wanting to avoid destroying human embryos and simply said his scientific career changed when he saw a human embryo through a microscope: “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realised there was such a small difference between it and my daughters … I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

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