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Stem-cell science stirs debate in Muslim world, too

By Christl DabuContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2005



CAIRO AND TORONTO

Egypt is joining the ranks of nations where scientists conduct stem-cell research. The private Egyptian IVF (in vitro fertilization) Center in Cairo is preparing to start such work in October, using stem cells from umbilical cord blood with the permission of newborns' parents. It won't delve immediately into the controversial realm of embryonic stem cells or therapeutic cloning - a way of deriving stem cells from cloned embryos.

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But as technology and cost barriers come down, clinical director Gamal Serour says he'd like to eventually use surplus "early embryos" from consenting couples who no longer need them for in vitro fertilization.

That could spark the same kind of ethical debate in Egypt that's now raging in the United States, and the prospect provides a window onto the Muslim world's divided views about the issue.

Unlike the Vatican in Catholicism, Islam does not have a centralized authority to state a position. Most Muslim countries - including Egypt - don't yet have laws concerning embryonic stem-cell research and cloning, says Thomas Eich, a researcher on Islamic bioethics at Bochum University in Germany.

Some Muslims in Egypt, a deeply conservative and religious country, are open to allowing embryonic stem-cell research, saying the embryo does not have a soul until later stages in its development. But others agree with Coptic Orthodox and Catholic clergy, who say it is immoral, even infanticide, to destroy embryos at any stage to harvest stem cells.

Cloning, even for therapeutic purposes, is currently forbidden in bylaws instituted by the Egyptian Medical Syndicate, an independent body overseeing all private and public medical practice in Egypt. The group also forbids the use of any embryos for experimentation.

"I don't know whether this position is going to stand for long ... [but destroying embryos for research] is not ethically right, it's not morally right, and it does not conform to our Islamic religion as it stands now," says Hamdy el-Sayed, the Muslim president of the Egyptian Medical Syndicate. "It's already a human life [at conception]." So far, he says, Egypt allows only nonembryonic stem-cell research, using sources such as umbilical cord blood.

But Dr. Serour argues that excess early embryos (less than 14 days old) are not yet human beings. "Instead of leaving them to perish, why not use them for research for the benefit of human beings?" he says during an interview at the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research in Cairo, which he directs.

Some Islamic scholars hold favorable views toward embryonic stem-cell research from the perspective of sharia (Islamic law). Most of these scholars believe ensoulment of the embryo occurs on the 120th day of the pregnancy, Mr. Eich says, and that is the point when it gains its moral status or rights as a legal person. Other Islamic scholars, however, say ensoulment occurs on the 40th day.

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