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Executive summary: Ethical and theological reflection on stem cell research

The World Council of Churches gathering to discuss "Stem cell research in the service of human life?" was held at the Orthodox Volos Academy of Theological Studies in Greece.

17 November 2009

The World Council of Churches gathering to discuss "Stem cell research in the service of human life?" was held at the Orthodox Volos Academy of Theological Studies in Greece, 9-11 November 2009.

The following themes emerged:

1.1 The need for caution

In opening this international consultation Father Vasileios Kalliakmanis, in opening this consultation remarked:

‘The discovery of the potency of stem-cells opened new horizons in research and raised great expectations for the curing of serious illnesses. At the same time, it created new moral dilemmas which need to be dealt with cautiously’

It was this note of caution that dominated the discussions around stem cells in the days that followed. Such caution was reflected not only in the scientific knowledge available, but also in approaching the topic globally through the eyes of those who did not stand to gain from such techniques.

1.2 Developing solidarity

Ethical dilemmas created by the introduction of new technologies have, however, universal impacts beyond those nations in which such techniques are developed. Solidarity was a useful starting point for discussion of complex issues between diverse peoples, for if medicine in general and stem cells in particular are to be to the service of all human beings, it must necessarily consider wider social issues that affect the whole human family, not just particular elite groups. Defining what the common good might mean in a global society is more a question to be explored rather than answered, but this includes the goods of science and technology. Those gathered for this meeting included doctors, theologians, bioethicists, activists, students and young people, and representatives from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Methodist, Jewish and Muslim traditions, from across a variety of nations and continents.

1.3 A theology of life

From a religious perspective the science of stem cell research is not necessarily a good to be sought. As reflection on theology from diverse traditions suggested, the common values of affirmation of life, relationships, respect for diversity and human dignity prevailed. Such affirmation of life was evident in the discussion between different religious traditions. For some this meant affirming human life from the moment of conception. Particular ethical difficulties were posed by stem cells that had been derived from embryos or those artificial constructs that had the decisive potential to form embryos under certain conditions, named embryoids by Professor James Rusthoven. Induced pluripotent stem cells were the most promising stem cells to use as they seem to avoid going through a stage when they could form embryos, yet displayed characteristics of embryonic stem cells. However, even these induced pluripotent cells could make up the body of a whole life form if appropriate additional cellular conditions were supplied. Different religious traditions were divided on how far it was necessary to affirm personal life from the moment of conception. Others preferred to view such affirmation of life in the wider context of life of all creatures. While the meaning of human dignity, human personhood, hominization and ensoulment was a matter of some debate, life itself was consistently viewed as a gift from God across the religious traditions represented at the meeting.  Further, a theology of affirmation of life is one that grows and develops in the context of the worshipping life of a community. It is through liturgy that we find the space to be people of God, made in God’s image, and therefore grounded in deep respect for all persons.

1.4 An ethic of responsibility.

Overall there was a clear recognition of the need for a combination of honesty and humility, both for those engaged in the science, and those encountered such issues in the church. Activists, academics and policy makers identified with this need. Professor Aviad Raz struck a common chord when he claimed that we needed to face up to the responsibility that confronted religious traditions through stem cell research. He suggested: 

"'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."

Responsibility could come, therefore, in a spirit of shared struggle and through careful listening to each other in humility and with deep respect for different contexts and concerns.

1.5 Health justice in broken world      

The disparity of income between different nations and their relative expenditure on new technologies showed up crucial examples of health injustice on a global scale, where 90% of health resources are spent on 10% of the global population. The death of poor and vulnerable people in the poorer nations of the world from diseases or conditions that could be curable stood in sharp contrast to the vast expenditure on stem cell research and development. Behind this concern is recognition of particular models of the global economy that seem to compound the issues. For example, we need to ask if unregulated stem cell research will flourish due to dominant interests of powerful nations exploiting vulnerable nations. Is this becoming another form of neo-colonial dominance? Such issues are compounded by poor regulation in many nations on exotic technologies, and the exploitation of vulnerable women in particular for their eggs for embryonic stem cell research. Behind this is a philosophy of the commodification of life that needs to be strongly resisted. The necessity for much tighter regulation and forms of international agreement was seen as a pressing issue of concern.

1.6 Seeking practical wisdom

Practical wisdom needs to help shape the way science is funded, developed and used. Such practical wisdom draws on the experience of those who are of different cultural and religious backgrounds. Practical wisdom is about deliberation, judgement and action, and needs to inform decision making at all levels, individual, ecclesial and political.  Deliberation includes memory of the past, attention to the present in terms of science, insight, reason, caution, and foresight. Memory includes the memory of communities and the recognition of the importance of community decision making in many cultural contexts, for example in Africa.

1.7 Finding ways forward

Developing insight on how best to inform different churches on this difficult issue included the realisation that the technologies do not stand still. Newer, more exotic technologies, such as nanotechnologies, have the potential for even greater manipulation of inherited genetic information. The supposed promise of this and other forms of bioengineering need to be treated with caution, but at the same time there was recognition that the churches needed to be ready to respond before this had developed into government policies in powerful nation states. It is important, therefore, to develop careful self-critical reflection, public discussion and strong education strategies in order to inform that discussion. Different religious traditions need to find a way of interpreting scriptures and other authoritative traditions so as to develop an authentic voice in the public sphere. While the opportunities for such input is clearly socially and culturally bound, the need to take up such opportunities was recognised as a crucial way forward. The faith communities cannot afford to remain silent on this issue, for silence amounts to acquiescence.