Muslim Silence in the Medical Ethics Debate

One of the defining features of our times is that barely a day seems to pass without the announcement of an amazing breakthrough in the fight against illness and disease. Whether it's a vaccine for meningitis, a wonder-drug to relieve AIDS, or a tiny blue pill for male impotence, the impression given - especially since the cracking of the human genome - is of a discipline marching invincibly forward. Such is the rate of progress that one could be forgiven for thinking that the end of sickness, like the end of history, is nigh.

This week boffins at the British Association for the Advancement of Science's annual festival declared they may have discovered a way to stop disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's which are believed to be caused by the shutdown of cell producing parts of the brain.

Perish the thought, but if the prognosis is as good as doctors suggest, there is a chance that we might soon see a return to full capacity of long-term Alzheimer's sufferers like Ronald Reagan. Others might not be so eager to take up the cure. In fact, the Greatest of all Parkinson's victims Muhammad Ali, will positively recoil at the suggestion. For instead of using flora or fauna, this treatment relies on dead babies.

Scientists want to extract stem cells from developing regions of the brain in aborted foetuses and implant them into the brains of people whose own stem cells have died. Although the science is still in its infancy, they hope that under the right conditions foetal stem cells will move around and begin repairing damaged parts of the brain.

The announcement immediately stoked an ethical controversy that has smouldered since June when the government published the Donaldson report - a review of the medicinal potential of developments in stem cell research.

Cures for everyday afflictions are the object, and the legitimation, for stem-cell research. Scientists hope that pluripotent stem cells, the basic biological building blocks of the body which evolve during gestation into our many organs and tissues, may one day be used to grow new organs to replace ailing hearts and treat brain disorders, or even cure diabetes by growing new insulin-producing cells.

If Parliament votes to accept its recommendations, the Donaldson report would also give the green light to create cloned embryos for experimentation. By inserting the nucleus from an adult cell into an egg with its nucleus removed scientists say they can create stem cells that may generate organ growth without the problems of rejection traditionally associated with transplantation between different bodies.

That's the science anyway. The ethics are less black and white. This is because the source of stem cells is the human embryo. The body has a variety of sources for producing stem cells including the blood cells of an umbilical cord at the time of birth and in bone marrow.

But scientists claim that it is those which come from the embryo that have the greatest potential since they are most capable of developing into most types of tissue.

True to form, in the national debate the issue has touched off, Muslims have been conspicuous by their silence - a wholly unacceptable state of affairs when you consider the disproportionate numbers of our professionals who are doctors.

Most of the running has been done by Christian pro-life groups and the Roman Catholic Church, which given their uncompromising position on abortion, have been the report's fiercest critics.

Quite why Muslims have failed to respond is another story. But it's certainly not because of a shortage of views. The Muslim stance might be characteristically variegated, but dig for it and it is definitely there.

There is no dispute about the status of the foetus. According to Dr Zaki Badawi, arguably Britain's foremost faqih, it is almost universally considered to have a fully human status and as such is inviolable. But the embryo is a different matter. Taking its lead from science, a growing body of opinion, says Dr. Badawi, is not prepared to say this of embryos In short, they are a pre-life form.

"An increasing number of scholars are inclined to support medical research using embryos if it is to improve or enhance the life of fully formed humans," says Dr. Badawi. "That is because the embryo does not have the status of a person until it becomes a foetus."

Other Muslims shudder at the thought of the shariah sanctioning what they believe amounts to the murder of a living entity to treat someone who is sick. The anti-research camp in Britain is led like Dr. Majid Katme, health advisor to the Muslim Council of Britain. It treads close to the Roman Catholic line in arguing that life begins at the moment an egg is fertilised.

"The fertilised egg is a potential human being and it should be respected. It should be respected," he believes. "There are two hadith of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) which talk of the baby's sexual and genetic characteristics being fixed at fertilisation."

"Imam Ghazali believed that it was a sin to disturb a fertilised egg, the bigger the embryo, the greater the sin. In the light of the knowledge we have today, I would not venture to say it is haram, as an embryo only becomes a foetus at around 42 days at about the same time that Allah breathes in the spirit, but there is certainly a case for treating it with respect."

Dr Katme added: "This science is uncertain. Its supporters admit that at this stage they cannot say whether their hypotheses will be borne out. I can't see why the government is so eager to support it given that it is so embryonic. It should be supporting the search for alternatives."

One of the most articulate warnings against stem cell research came from Cardinal Thomas Winning, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and chair of the Church's British bio-ethics committee. Accusing scientists of operating in a "moral fog" he attacked the idea of creating life in order to simply destroy it again.

"The difference must again be highlighted between the conception of life as a gift of love and the view of human beings as a mere chemical by-product...In human cloning, the necessary condition for any society begins to collapse: that of treating man always and everywhere as an end, as a value, and never as a mere means or simple object."

With no clear moral consensus on the issue it's a tough call to make. Perhaps the best judge is the human heart, which the Cardinal reminds us, is engraved with an instinctive knowledge of good and evil of right and wrong. There is something deeply unsettling about stem cell research and maybe public repugnance is "a natural response to the crass violation of nature's laws."

There is also something disturbing about the use of language. For the layman the scientific argot can be duping. It is easy to forget that the world of embryos, fetal tissues and balls of cells is the world of real human beings. Are they, as critics claim. deliberate euphemisms designed to minimise public concern?

How comfortable would we be if scientists used the word aborted babies, body parts and cloning?

Whatever the rights and wrongs, one thing is clear. Science is racing ahead faster than the rest of society can digest its advances. And in the absence of moral guidelines, it is increasingly setting the limits, in the words of Cardinal Winning, "not at the threshold of what is right, but rather at the limit of what is possible."

Islamic scholars have much ground to make up if they is to fulfil their duty to steer science in the right direction. "We are now faced with questions about technological advances that our ancestors didn't even dream of", says Dr. Badawi. "If we don't confront them then science will forge ahead regardless, much as it did in the west after its battles with the chur,ch, and we wi,ll have absol,utely no say over its course."

(Faisal Bodi is a British Muslim journalist and former deputy editor of Q-News, a Muslim Magazine.)

  Category: Nature & Science
  Topics: Biology, Health, Islam And Science, Science And Technology
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