By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
The debate over the funding and regulation of stem cell research has grabbed the headlines. It is really a small sub-issue in the broader field of medical ethics. It has become a proxy battle over the issue of abortion, when it should really be a take-off point for a discussion of how one balances other cherished values against the value of promoting–even saving–lives in the future.
The first thing we must acknowledge before even starting the debate is that the benefits of stem cell research will come some time in the future. It may be decades before we see practical commercial applications that will help the victims of Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, assist in recovery from strokes, or before we see cripples able to get out of their wheelchairs and walk. (Although when it comes to scientific progress, things usually come to fruition far sooner than most people guess.)
So what is a stem cell? “A stem cell is any cell that can give rise to more than one kind of cell.” The easiest way to obtain such cells is from human embryos, that is, fetal tissue that has not yet differentiated. The cells in that state would eventually develop into the differentiated cells appropriate to the different organs of the human body. It is their versatility for which they are prized.
What are the moral issues raised by this research? The main issue has been the question of whether it is morally permissible to use embryo material for purposes other than gestation into human beings. The entire pro-life movement, but especially the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals, have become concerned about the perceived link to abortion. Such research poses a risk of encouraging women to have abortions in order to provide stem cells. Worse yet, some women may decide to get pregnant specifically so that the embryo may be aborted to harvest stem cells.
Are the moral issues inherent to the nature of the research? The simple fact is that they are not. Even the bill that passed the House of Representatives last week (HR 2505) was really a ban on human cloning. It did, however, make no exception for therapeutic cloning, that is, the extraction of stem cells from cloned embryos. Thus the debate was expanded to include a debate on the issue of stem cell research. In particular, the question is being debated on whether federal funds should be used to support stem cell research. The NIH guidelines in the United States specifically forbid the creation of embryos for research purposes while the British government has announced a policy permitting this practice (Bailey 2000).
Fro Muslims the concerns that drive the Catholic and Evangelical concerns are not pertinent. Ensoulment according to the Qur’an and sunnah does not occur until the fourth month. Thus, the use of embryonic stem cells in itself does not violate Islamic law. Even if a termination of pregnancy is involved, there could be no question of “abortion is murder” since the embryo is not a person. Nonetheless, the question of whether the creation of an embryo by a husband and wife specifically for the purpose of creating stem cells for the medical treatment of the couple or their children or other relatives should be prohibited remains controversial in Muslim circles. Bill Broadway (2001) quotes Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences in Kuwait to the effect that “Islam opposes creating embryos with the intention of using them for research.”
Fortunately, the ethical dilemmas by which the pundits sell newspapers and the politicians scramble for votes are not central to the future of stem cell research. Embryos may be the easiest way to obtain stem cells, but they are not the only way. A number of important breakthroughs in animal studies have already been achieved in stem cell research without recourse to embryonic sources or other products of abortion. Adult stem cells or stem cells from umbilical cords have provided the material with which scientists have engaged in major research in Italian organ transplant studies, University of South Florida stroke research into the alleviation of stroke symptoms, creation of heart tissue by the people who cloned “Dolly” the sheep, and HIV-related research at Enzio Biochem, Inc. In other words, Allah in his bounty always opens more doors than He closes.
The fact is that those who complain that federal funding of stem cell research is necessary because commercial institutions won’t fund research on their own miss the fundamental point of economic calculation. If the market decides that funding of research through halal means is not economically justified, then perhaps the market is telling us that the costs outweigh the benefits. To try to solve this “problem” by injecting government money, especially when some of the taxpayers have religious objection as to how their money shall be used, is to assert that politicians are better arbiters of how to balance the morality of protecting the weak (e.g., embryos) against advancing the quality of life of the rest of society. Politicians, however, are the most notoriously short-sighted members of society, generally incapable of seeing beyond the next election. If subsidies are required for this kind of research, let it be through vehicle of research universities or the establishment of dedicated research foundations funded by those whose values reflect the missions of the institutions.
In the classical Islamic society we had such institutions. They were call awqâf.
Bailey, Ronald 2000. “Getting On With It,” Reason Online (8/24/2000) http://www.reason.com/hod/rb082400.html (accessed 8/7/2001).
Broadway, Bill 2001 “Faith Is a Force On Both Sides of Stem Cell Debate: Religious Communities Split Sharply On Permitting Embryonic Research,” Washington Post (8/4) B9.