Volume 3, April 2003
Embyronic Stem Cells: Science Ethics and Public Policy:
*Based on a conference taking place January
17-18, 2003 at Virginia Wesleyan
College, Center for Study of
**Professor of Philosophy, Old Dominion
University and St.
The Center for Religious Freedom at Virginia
wishing to examine the thorny issue of the therapeutic use of embryonic stem
cells, gathered together a group of some of the more important names in the
field of bioethics for a lively discussion.
Dr. Catharine Cookson, Center Director, convened the conference,
emphasizing the spirit of civilized inquiry.
Using the words of St. Francis she asked that we approach issues
“seeking to understand; not so much to be understood.” A fascinating panel of distinguished speakers
was the crux of the Friday Session and a spirited debate was the focus of the
Dr. Roger Gosden (Jones Institute-EVMS) started the
program with a brief introduction to the biology of embryonic stems cells (ES
cells). Making it quite clear that this
research is still in early stages, he stated that there are still no definite
answers for the effective uses of ES cells and that problems with “imprinted”
genes present a special challenge for those working with ES cells.
Dr. Daniel Callahan (Hastings Center) presented an
emphatic opinion that ES cells should never be used for research. Based on the
concept of respect for embryos he said, “I do not believe even minimal respect
is compatible with use of embryos for research purposes.” Anything that
involves destruction of embryos does not constitute respect in his view. Along these lines, Callahan pointed out that
the U.S. government is currently funding other research projects aimed at
resolving some of the same problems that stem cell research is intended to
resolve. Hence, those who suggest that federal opposition to stem cell research
don’t care about the health and well being of those suffering from paralysis,
Alzheimer’s, and so on, are guilty of assuming a false dichotomy between
conducting ES cell research or allowing innocent persons to languish.
Dr. Cynthia Cohen (The Kennedy Institute-Georgetown
University) discussed the history of early Christian ideas regarding
embryos. Tracing her way through church
history, she concluded that it is “morally acceptable to use early embryos
remaining after in vitro fertilization procedures have been completed,” but she
believed that creating embryos for stem cell research is “morally questionable”.
Dr. Peter Prosser (Galilee Episcopal Church/Regent
University) spoke on behalf of the evangelical Christian perspective. Referencing the Hippocratic Oath “First do no
harm,” he spoke against ES research as it involves destruction of entities that
have been “ensouled at the time of conception.”
Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner (Florence Melton Adult
Jewish Institute) defended the use of ES cells harvested before the 40th
day. According to Jewish tradition, an
embryo is not viewed as “having a life and independent interests”. He compared
research on embryos to research on animals and human subjects and concluded, contra Callahan, that research using ES
cells is compatible with respect for human embryos. He noted that while ES cell research has much
therapeutic promise, much is still unproven.
Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina (Islamic Studies-UVA) offered
a precise and detailed approach to question of when human life began. According to the Koran and Moslem tradition,
the fetus receives personhood at 120 days.
He eloquently spoke on the human capacity to solve ethical dilemmas
based on our God-given ability to reason.
Dr. Dilip Sarkar (EVMS / Hindu Temple of Hampton
Roads) presented the Hindu idea that life begins at conception. Predicated on the Law of Karma, the use of ES
cells could be acceptable based on the “intention” of those involved. This
discussion is ongoing in the Hindu community, as there are more conservative
thinkers who do not support this position regarding “intention”.
Other presentations on the program included papers on
the legal status of the embryo and bio-business. Susan Crockin, Esq., discussed the current
legal status of the embryo and pointed out that, despite the fact that certain
individuals in contemporary society make use of the phrase “embryo adoption,”
there is no such thing and that, generally speaking, the legal status of the embryo
remains unclear because of “competing and conflicting public policies.” On the topic of bio-business, Donald
Tortorice, Esq., pointed out that the “get healthy, get wealthy” mindset of
many companies involved in biological research strongly suggests that we
proceed with caution and that we must take a consequentialist approach with
regard to interpretive law governing biological research.
The program concluded
with a debate between Dr. Ronald Green (Ethics Institute-Dartmouth College) and
the Very Reverend Russell Smith (Vicar for Healthcare Ministry-Diocese of
Richmond VA). Dr. Green discussed the
dangers of religiously motivated research obstruction, including the lack of
knowledge regarding miscarriages and the stifling of the development of safer
and more effective means of contraception.
He also pointed to the inconsistency exhibited by those who object to ES
cell research but are supportive of the employment of assisted reproductive
technologies despite the fact that fertility clinics waste or destroy numerous
embryos in an attempt to help women achieve pregnancy. Rev. Smith emphasized the right of the church
to “instruct and inform freely” in a democratic society. Smith further pointed out that those who
attempt to defend the destruction of embryos for research purposes by appealing
to the fact that “mother nature” routinely discards many embryos are failing to
recognize the is/ought distinction. That
is, the fact that this state of affairs obtains in nature says nothing about
whether we should intentionally destroy embryos. These two gentlemen debated diametrically opposing
views with vigor and dignity.
Although the ES cell research controversy still
rages, the conference gave all who attended a deeper understanding of the
primary issues. The VWC Center for
Religious Freedom fulfilled its mission to allow “people of deep faith and
abiding conscience share common goals that transcend denominational
Additional information can be obtained at