Many countries in the Middle East became very wealthy since they discovered oil more than 100 years ago. Oil however is a limited natural resource and therefore countries like Iran started to look for other ways to secure their future economy. One of these investments has been in the field of biotechnology, more precisely stem cell research. Reasons for this investment come from rulers who have realized the importance of building up a knowledge-based economy and the need to be able to treat different types of diseases in the region. These diseases may be different from the eastern or western part of the world and thus require regional expertise to be eradicated.
Most countries in the Middle East are Islamic and follow the Islamic law Sharia. Islamic law is quite open to use biomedical technology as long as it benefits human kind; however the majority has no legal framework for regulating stem cell research. Instead scientists often follow local legislation’s or religious fatwas. A fatwa is an opinion stated by an Islamic scholar based on the Islamic law and its interpretation. Even though these fatwas cannot be regarded as laws, they often define the country as either permissive or restrictive in the field of stem cell research.
Unlike Catholics who believe that life begins with fertilization, Muslims believe that life begins after the soul has taken place in the body. The Quaran, Islams holy book, does not pin point exactly when this ensoulment takes place, however different interpretations of Hadiths (sayings of the prophet Muhammad) have suggested 40 days, 80 days and 120 days after fertilization. Muslim jurists have not been able to agree on the specific time of the event. What they do agree on, is that the ensoulment changes the embryos status and is then regarded as being human. This event is important when deciding on regulations for abortion as well as any medical intervention affecting the embryo. Given that the embryo only gets a human status after the ensoulment, one can argue that doing research on embryonic stem cells before this event is ethical acceptable. Muslims who believe in such a clear boundary between a non-human and a human embryo, generally find it acceptable to destruct the embryo for research purposes since it is not considered as something living. If on the other hand the embryos moral status is seen as something developing over time, then the research on embryonic stem cells becomes harder to defend ethically. Because Muslim scholars haven’t been able to come to an agreement as to when the ensoulment takes place or what the moral status of an embryo is, different regions are practising different regulations on embryonic stem cell research depending on their interpretation of the Hadiths.
Iran, which is a constitutional islamic republic, is one of the countries in the Middle East that has quickly established a field in stem cell research. The country’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a stem cell fatwa in 2002 stating that experimentation with human embryonic stem cells is consistent with Shiite Islam, thus making stem cell research possible in Iran. He has further urged scientist to advance the technology and save lives. In order to have some control over the research, the Iranian ministry of Health quickly established “Ethical Guidelines for Gamete and Embryo Research.” These guidelines allow the use of surplus in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for research purposes, if the embryos are not older than 14 days. It is prohibited however, to generate human embryos with the sole purpose of doing research. Because of Iran’s liberal approach to stem cell technology, and a goal of becoming the leading nation, some major breakthroughs have taken place at the Royan Institute in Tehran. In 2005, Iranian scientist injected human embryonic stem cells into rats that were paralysed, and released results that they were able to walk again. Just a year later, in 2006, they cloned a sheep. The current challenge is to be able to transform adult stem cells into embryonic stem cells. This would be a great achievement because embryonic stem cells are much more versatile and can develop into any type of cell. Furthermore, using adult stem cells is seen as being less controversial.
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Ertin, H., & Ilkilic I. (2010). Ethical Aspects of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Islamic World: Positions and Reflections. Stem cell reviews and reports, 6(2), pp. 151-161.
Schienberg, J., & Katz, N. (2009). Iran: The stem cell fatwa. Retrieved, March 2011, from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2009/06/iran_stem_cell.html.