The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law

Manuscripts and Articles

Volume 3, April 2003

Embyronic Stem Cells: Science Ethics and Public Policy:
Conference Report*

Anne-Taylor Cahill**

*Based on a conference taking place January 17-18, 2003 at Virginia Wesleyan College, Center for Study of Religious Freedom.

**Professor of Philosophy, Old Dominion University and St. Leo University


The Center for Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College 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 Saturday Session.

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 boundaries.”

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