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Science, religion and a 'culture of life'

7 February 2005
By Dr Kirsty Horsey
reproduction editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 294
As we report in BioNews this week, President George Bush has pledged support for a 'culture of life' in American science. In his view, this means pursuing his policy on embryonic stem (ES) cell funding, and refusing to allow federal funds for researchers working to create ES cell lines. It also means that he is thinking again about the bioethics agenda in the US and is working on other ways to ensure that embryos are not created or destroyed for research purposes.

   Bush believes that using human embryos in research is 'taking advantage of some lives for the benefit of others', based on his strongly-held religious belief that life begins at conception. This view was echoed by a judge in Illinois last week (see story, below), but is seemingly legally incorrect. The judge's decision is likely to be overturned on appeal, as statutory wording suggesting the same has previously been ruled unconstitutional in relation to abortion law.

   However, what Bush fails to allow is the validity of making use of some of the hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in fertility clinics across the US, which have been 'left over' from successful fertility treatments and will otherwise be discarded. IVF also involves the 'killing' of embryos, an inevitable side-effect of allowing fertility procedures to take place. But these embryos, as scientists and politicians have suggested many times to Bush, could have a research purpose, rather than simply be washed down the sink. ES cell research could take place using these embryos, meaning not only that many embryos would not need to be created for research purposes, but also that they would not go 'to waste'. If a culture of life is really what Bush seeks to promote, he should take advantage of this fact, and use it to allow ES cell researchers and others to conduct research that would greatly improve the quality of life - or even save lives - of other people.

   Meanwhile, in the UK, since the latest reshuffle of Tony Blair's cabinet, scientists have expressed 'alarm' about the new Education Secretary's religious beliefs. Perhaps they fear a scientific climate restricted in a similar way to that of the US. Ruth Kelly, the minister in question, is a pro-life Catholic (Opus Dei) with strong views against abortion and embryo research. She voted against ES cell research in parliamentary debates and has told the Prime Minister that she could never support it.

   But this, it seems, is where her similarities with President Bush end. Instead of using her religious beliefs to further her own political agenda on science (as Education Secretary she has serious money at her disposal for research), she responded to these fears in a way that may in fact comfort scientists. Last week, she said that her primary allegiance as a minister is to collective cabinet responsibility - indeed, she distinguished herself from Conservative Ann Widdecombe who, famously, said she would never accept the job as Health Minister as she was not prepared to sanction abortion in that way. Kelly says that despite her own beliefs, she supports the government's policy on stem cell research, and will implement it.

   The UK government, as a democratically elected representation of the will of the people, allowed ES cell research after debates in 2000. The will of the people, through government policy, guides Ruth Kelly to politically support ES cell research while not compromising her own beliefs. Perhaps President Bush should take a leaf out of her book and stop hindering scientific progress with personal opinion.
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7 February 2005 - by BioNews 
In his State of the Union speech last week, US President George Bush expressed his support for the advancement of science, but made a pledge to support a 'culture of life', calling for a ban on the creation of embryos for research purposes. 'To build a culture of life, we...
7 February 2005 - by BioNews 
A court in Illinois, US, has ruled that a couple can take a 'wrongful death' action over an IVF embryo that was accidentally discarded at a fertility clinic. Alison Miller and Todd Parrish were undergoing treatment at the Centre for Human Reproduction in Chicago in 2002, and had stored nine...
2 February 2005 - by BioNews 
Ruth Kelly, the UK's recently appointed Minister for Education, has confirmed that she supports the government's policy on embryonic stem (ES) cell research and other issues, despite being a member of the 'ultra-orthodox' Catholic Opus Dei prelature. Since becoming Education Secretary, Ms Kelly has faced increasing pressure to reveal where...
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