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IN THE NEWS

Rapid science makes it hard to reconcile ethics dilemmas
Ann Arbor News (June 6, 2005)

 

Faiths, denominations differ on stem cell research

News Staff Reporter

For traditional Roman Catholics, the rules are strict, and church leaders are leading a fierce fight against embryonic stem cell research. At the other end of the spectrum, Hindus think the issue is interesting, indeed worth serious discussion, but not front-burner. Yet for them as well as other denominations, there's no single, unequivocal voice.

And science is moving so fast, some church leaders said, that religious thinkers have trouble keeping up.

With advances in molecular biology accelerating at an ever-increasing rate, it's hard to understand the moral and ethical implications of a new discovery before the next one, said the Rev. Rolf Bouma, director of the Center for Faith and Scholarship, which is part of Campus Chapel, a Christian Reformed ministry for students at the University of Michigan.

"In many cases, denominations are not getting explicit guidance about stem cell research," Bouma said.

Michigan has some of the strictest laws in the country regarding such research, strongly backed by groups such as the Michigan Catholic Conference and Right to Life. Along with Illinois, Michigan prohibits live embryo research. And, as do Arkansas, Iowa and North Dakota, the state forbids research on cloned embryos - the kind of work that led to a recent breakthrough in South Korea, in which scientists created the world's first human, embryonic stem cells customized for injured or sick patients.

Religious doctrines offer another set of rules.

The Catholic Church approves and encourages research using stem cells taken from human adults, but forbids research on stem cells taken from embryos, saying it involves mechanical creation of life as well as its destruction.

"The church believes life begins at conception and ends at natural death," said Dave Maluchnik, a spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference. "The government has no right to create or destroy human life, and it should never be using public tax dollars to fund such research."

The church also condemns the latest research from South Korea, Maluchnik said, because it involves not only embryonic stem cells but human cloning.

"The church follows science. Any genetics textbook says life begins at conception," said Janet Smith, an ethics professor at Sacred Heart Seminary, a school in Detroit for Catholic men studying for the priesthood.

"Rights follow on what kind of thing you are, not your level of functioning," Smith said. "If rights depended on functioning, a person with a high IQ would have higher rights than one with a lower one."

It is immoral to kill one human being to help another, Smith said. It would be wrong, she said, to take a heart from a retarded person and give it to one with a normal IQ.

But what about leftover embryos - eggs fertilized in vitro, but left unused and thus scheduled to be discarded?

"That's the claim made in Nazi Germany," Smith said. "The thought was, 'Those people are going to die, we might as well experiment on their organs.'"

Hindu thought on stem cell research is more divided. In a January issue of Hinduism Today, Swami Sri-Tiruchi Mahaswamigal said he opposes stem cell research, that it simply prolongs the cycle of birth and death that humankind is trying to escape. "We have to accept what is inevitable, and not go out of the way to protect this frail body," he writes.

In India, where the population is largely Hindu, stem cell research isn't a hot-button issue, said Madhav Deshpande, a professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Asian Languages and Cultures.

"I'm personally against abortion," Deshpande said. "But if an embryo is never going to be implanted - if it's going to be discarded - why can't we use it? At least there would be possible cures for living people."

Several Jewish authorities said in making decisions about human life, the usual guiding principle is preservation of existing life.

According to Conservative Judaism, embryonic stem cells offer the possibility of curing disease, thereby preserving life, said Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of the Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor and a Conservative rabbi.

Rabbi Rod Glogower, who leads the local Orthodox Jewish community and also serves on the Hillel staff, pointed to the Talmud, the authoritative commentary on Jewish law. Both embryonic and adult stem cell research is permissible, Glogower said, because according to the Talmud, an embryo doesn't have full status and protection as a human being until 40 days after conception.

A ruling from the Rabbinic Council of America, a major source of guidance for Orthodox Jews, encourages stem cell research: "It is not only permitted but imperative to proceed with this field of science," Glogower said, quoting from the council ruling. The reason is that such research will help preserve human life.

That Rabbinic Council ruling limits embryonic research to fertilized eggs created for purposes of reproduction. Wholesale manufacture of embryos for research is forbidden; however, the council left the door open a crack, saying it might reconsider if a shortage of stem cells arises.If a fetus is aborted, stem cells may be harvested by a third party, said Rabbi Robert Levy, leader of Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Ann Arbor. But it would be morally wrong to either create or abort a fetus simply to harvest organs or stem cells, he said.

Differing opinions also exist within the Christian Reformed church. A national committee of Christian Reformed pastors and lay people attempted to tackle the stem cell issues, but their 2003 report drew mixed responses. Anti-abortion forces resisted attempts to broaden the definition of when life begins. Medical ethicists and theologians said the report did not adequately address key concerns.

Bouma said the document ultimately adopted by the church leaves significant problems unaddressed. For example, he said, what to do with embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

Such dilemmas are frustrating, Bouma said, but because Protestantism also places high value on the individual conscience, "I have more freedom to explore the issues with members of my congregation."

© 2005 Ann Arbor News
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