Second HSCI Public Forum addresses religious perspectives on stem cell research

Representatives of three of the world’s major religions carried on a lively discussion about the beginning of human life, the disposal of surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, and human embryonic stem cell research at the second HSCI Stem Cell Public Forum, held in March at the Harvard Divinity School.

Representing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the four guest speakers at the well-attended event each presented their faith’s teachings about the beginnings of human life, then embarked on a wide-ranging discussion about diverse ethical issues relating to human embryonic stem cell research.

The forum’s guest speakers were Eric Cohen, director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., who presented contrasting Judaic points of view; Omar Sultan Haque, a Muslim theologian at Harvard Medical School; John Davis, PhD, a Presbyterian minister and professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and Llewellyn Smith, MDiv, DMin, of the Andover/Newton Theological School and a minister with the United Church of Christ.

The conservative Christian belief that human life is created at conception contrasted with the view common among Jews that an embryo does not achieve human status until 40 days after conception, and the similar Muslim view that human life begins when the soul enters the developing embryo sometime between 40 and 120 days following conception.

The differing beliefs among these faiths as to when a developing embryo becomes a human likely account for their varying levels of acceptance of human embryonic stem cell research, which is widely supported in the Jewish community and accepted by many Muslims, yet is opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations.

Harvard Stem Cell Institute faculty members M. William Lensch, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston, and Jerome Ritz, MD, of Dana- Farber Cancer Institute, also participated in the forum, providing clarification on scientific matters. Philip Clayton, PhD, Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School, moderated the event.

Clayton pointed out that the ethical issues surrounding human embryonic stem cell research have made it one of the best-known and higheststakes ethical debates of our times. Supporters, Clayton said, insist that the promise of stem cell research to cure debilitating diseases means the work must go forward. Opponents, however, say that the need to destroy human embryos as a source of stem cells makes the cost of that research too high.

“Exploring ethical matters related to stem cell research is a vital part of the Institute’s mission,” said HSCI Executive Director Brock C. Reeve, who introduced the event. “We are pleased so many in the community attended and participated in this important debate.” 

Stem Cell Science 101: Third HSCI Public Forum

HSCI’s Public Forum is a series of free, quarterly educational sessions designed for the general public. The third HSCI Public Forum, “Stem Cell Science 101,” which was held June 26 on the Harvard campus, provided an overview of stem cell science in easy-to-understand terms and how this research is affecting treatments for diseases.

Guest speakers were HSCI Executive Committee member George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital Boston, and HSCI Principal Faculty members Amy Wagers, PhD, of Joslin Diabetes Center, and Chad Cowan, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital. An overview of this forum will be published in the Fall issue of Stem Cell Lines.