From contraception to cloning to assisted suicide to dark matter, almost every scientific breakthrough over the last hundred years having some necessity…


Europe. Early 1600s. The Catholic Church is at the height of its power. An ambitious young astronomer announces that, contrary to popular belief, the sun does not, in fact, orbit the earth. It is the other way around. Imagine the controversy. He is denounced, his theory is called “false and contrary to Scripture” and he is found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest.

And so the conflict began: welcome to science versus religion.

From contraception to cloning to assisted suicide to dark matter, almost every scientific breakthrough over the last hundred years having some necessity for ethical evaluation has pitted the scientific community against religious beliefs. Now, there is stem cell research: the newest battle. And ever since America passed the Stem Cell Enhancement Act earlier this year, this battle has intensified. A perfect example of the tension between faith and science.

Of course, it goes back further than this, to the days of Galileo and Darwin, but never before have the pace of science and the traditions of the Church so publically clashed.

Last year, the Catholic Church released a list of seven modern sins, 1500 years after the establishment of the seven deadly sins. Among them was stem cell research. In the official statement by the Vatican, Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary said: “You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbour’s wife, but also by carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos”.

Rosa DeLauro, the American congresswoman who introduced the Stem Cell Enhancement Act retaliated, saying: “Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, brain and spinal cord disorders, diabetes, cancer: at least 58 diseases could potentially be cured through stem cell research, diseases that touch every family in America and in the world”.

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells and can therefore theoretically still be manipulated to replace any tissue in the human body. This is what the research aims to achieve. And embryos are an easy source of stem cells, especially because no differentiation has taken place that early in human development.

So, the crux of the issue is this: where does life start? Because human embryonic stem cell research requires the termination of the embryo after the stem cells have been retrieved. The Church maintains that life begins at conception while science argues that it just isn’t that simple. Proponents of stem cell research maintain that because an embryo can’t survive outside the womb, it is not equivalent to human life, only potential life. Furthermore, only a third of human zygotes survive implantation in any case. Most religions around the world are adamant, though, that a human embryo is inherently valuable and termination is tantamount to murder.

But it is not only the Church that protests stem cell research, nor is religion the only basis for objection. Some researchers are critical of embryonic stem cell research simply because they feel there are better alternatives. They argue that adult stem cells produce better results.

Prof. De Villiers at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Dogmatics and Christian Ethics says that, strangely enough, the Church’s position is not necessarily based on faith or doctrine at all. He says it is simply the fact that as soon as you accept that an embryo is a person, it becomes a question of taking an innocent life. Most churches have chosen to react against this.

“Most South African churches,” he adds, “don’t even have an official policy on stem cell research.”

Perdeby asked prof. De Villiers if he thinks that the religion is the best platform from which to argue against the ethical merits of stem cell research, considering the volatile relationship between the Church and science. “I think churches have reacted too quickly in the past. Churches tend to dismiss things on principle without necessarily understanding them, which can have negative consequences. Just look at Galileo. Without understanding the science behind something, how can you just reject it? The ethical ramifications need to be carefully considered and religion does not necessarily have the expertise to effectively do that. The Church’s biggest concern, I think, is that things like stem cell research are used for the right reasons.”

And they have good reason to be concerned. Misuse of embryonic cells can lead to uncontrolled cell reproduction and the growth of tumours.

Recently, Japanese scientists reported having discovered a way to extract stem cells from embryos without having to destroy them, which would steer the debate in a radically different direction. Further testing is still necessary though, so the battle rages on.

Now, 400 years since that ambitious young astronomer defied religious doctrine in the name of science, the relationship between the two has become more and more complex. Reconciliation, however, is not unprecedented, neither is compromise. As Albert Einstein famously put it: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”.

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