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Finding a path between faith and human need

8 May 2006
By Sheila AM McLean
International Bar Association Professor of Law and Ethics in Medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland and director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine
Appeared in BioNews 357
In common with most faith groups, the Church of Scotland's position on the human embryo has historically proceeded from the perspective that the embryo is an actual person at all stages of its development, from conception onwards, and must be treated accordingly. This is probably to be expected. However, over recent years, this apparently unequivocal commitment has been modified to take account both of the potential of medical science and the Church's own compassion for childless couples and people in urgent need of innovative therapies. In 2001, for example, while maintaining its opposition to human reproductive cloning, the Church's General Assembly agreed that it was not impermissible to create and use cloned embryos for important research. At the same time, however, it also maintained its opposition to the use of surplus embryos for stem cell research. It is not entirely clear on what basis this distinction was drawn, and its apparent lack of logic led to re-evaluation and the publication of its most recent report.

This report - in my view courageously - has revisited this position and accepts that there is no clear Biblical foundation for the notion that conception is indeed the critical predictor of humanity, and that other interpretations of the Bible are also worthy of respect. Accordingly, it prefers to make 14 days after conception the critical cut-off point, agreeing with the current legal position in the United Kingdom which allows embryo research up until that stage is reached. It concludes, therefore, that until the 14-day limit has been reached, it is not mandatory to offer the embryo the full respect that would be due to actual persons. Within this time frame, then, embryo research can be permitted, so long as it is for a 'very good reason'.

In the opinion of the contributors to this report, it is less 'ethically' contentious to use embryos which are surplus or spare following IVF - which is the most common source of embryos for research - than deliberately to create embryos for that purpose, as the former are never destined for implantation and will never become children. Nonetheless the report accepts that this may not always be the ideal position, if, for example, it became clear that there was no alternative source of embryos for important research. And interestingly, given their previous position, the majority of the working group agreed that - even taking account of the potential of adult stem cells - it was likely that embryos would still need to be used in stem cell research.

This report is in many ways remarkable. It is well informed, reasoned and open-minded, albeit set against a background of commitment to a particular faith. Too often, the position adopted by faith groups - and those coming from other ideological positions - is set in stone, with no room for debate and, in my view even more importantly, no room for compassion. What the Church of Scotland's General Assembly is being asked by the authors of this report to do is to agree that faith doesn't preclude change; that humanity involves respect not just for human embryos but for those who are already born and suffering. In recognising the potential benefits of medical progress, while at the same time maintaining the principal tenets of their faith, this report is a prime example of the immensely valuable contribution that faith groups can make - in a positive rather than a negative manner. Too often, debate in this area is polarised and intransigent. The Church of Scotland seems to be leading the way in finding a way of negotiating a path between faith and human need.

23 April 2006 - by BioNews 
A working group of the Church of Scotland has issued a report on a project it undertook to revisit the clinical, theological and ethical issues surrounding embryonic (ES) stem cell research. The group's report recommends that the Church of Scotland alters its current policy on the scientific technique. The Society...
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