Stem-cell science stirs debate in Muslim world, too
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According to another view of sharia, there is a distinction between potential life and actual life, says Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America in Orange County, Calif. Although life begins at conception in the womb, he says, an embryo formed by artificial fertilization "is not in its natural environment.... If it is not placed in the womb it will not survive and it will not become a human being."Skip to next paragraph
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"It is obligatory to pursue this research, [which] has great potential to relieve human disease and suffering," Dr. Siddiqi continues, but he believes stem cells should be derived only from therapeutic cloning or from excess frozen embryos that were created for in vitro fertilization.
Egypt will not be the first predominantly Muslim country to conduct stem-cell research. Iranian scientists developed human embryonic stem-cell lines in 2003 with the approval of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, says LeRoy Walters, a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington. Singapore, where Muslims have a slight majority, has also produced embryonic stem-cell lines. And nonembryonic stem-cell research is conducted in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia, says Una Chen, who is based in Giessen, Germany, as chairwoman of the International Committee for the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
In 2003, a scholar in Cairo issued a fatwa (Islamic religious ruling) stating that therapeutic cloning of embryos would be considered lawful and could be compared to the accepted practice of donating cells, tissues, or organs for transplants, Professor Walters says.
Some other Muslim groups and countries support both embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, such as Turkey, the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in Egypt, and the National Fatwa Council in Malaysia.
But many officials in Muslim countries are concerned that these practices could lead to the cloning and killing of babies to supply organs or other "spare parts" for patients, says Zaghloul el-Naggar, an Egyptian expert on Islam and science. Other potential abuses: people selling embryos or using surplus embryos without consent of the parents.
Ragaa Mansour, scientific director and program manager of the Egyptian IVF Center, hopes these fears won't cause Egyptian officials to ban stem-cell research or severely restrict its funding. "How can we ban anything just because it can be misused?" Dr. Mansour says. "We should regulate and prevent misuse of technology [and] encourage research in the right direction."
So far, the Egyptian government doesn't appear to be taking any rash actions. "It's important for the government to support it, and I do encourage stem-cell research," says Salah Labib, director general of the Ministry of Health and Population's Specialized Medical Committee, a governmental arm responsible for funding well-established treatments.
Dr. Labib says he would be open to financing future stem-cell therapies, provided they are safer, easier, and cheaper than some of the treatments the government is financing now. "But I think every research should ... be ethically evaluated first," he says.
• The writer reported this story partly from Cairo and partly through phone interviews from Toronto.