In our project we wanted to explore how far certain countries have come in stem cell research. When comparing Iran, Norway, South Africa, South Korea and The United States of America we raised the question: How far has each country come in stem cell research and why have they not gotten further? Is it due to religion, political views, economy or other obstacles?
Religion has for a long time been one of the main obstacles for stem cell research. This has however changed, as common knowledge concerning stem cells has increased. Over 84% of the Norwegian population is a member of the Church of Norway, compared to 76% Christians in the US. The members of the Norwegian church are however less active. The US is a church-going nation with 40% attending church every Sunday; in Norway only 3% attend church weekly. Both countries also had a strong anti-abortion campaign in the 1970’s, which has been linked to the aversion to stem cell research, but in today’s Norway these are a minority. Federal funds have been stopped in the US, due to a court order arguing that embryonic stem cell research is research executed on cells from an embryo once destroyed, hence violating the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Governmental backing is minor in Norway as well, and the field is therefore small. The will to invest in the oil industry is huge, which has made stem cell research a field where the government is unlikely to place their money. Although only a small percentage of Norwegians attend church regularly, the Norwegian Christian Democracy Party dominated politics in the early 2000s, and their Christian values have hindered a more liberal stem cell research policy. Lack of funding has led to a slow-down in stem cell research in Norway, while this kind of research has been driven to the private sector in the US.
A country with strong religious beliefs does not necessarily mean it is an obstacle for stem cell research. Iran, which is a constitutional Islamic republic, is a good example of a country with a strong religion, but where stem cell research flourishes. There are no laws in Islam regulating stem cell research. Instead there are legislations based on opinions stated by an Islamic scholar founded on Islamic law and its interpretation, also called a Fatwa. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s religious leader 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. Stem cell research therefore got both religious and political backing in Iran, and by this also funding. Muslims believe that life begins after the soul has taken place in the body. This different view of the fetus’s intrinsic value makes it possible for the Islamic faith and research on embryonic stem cells to co-exist. Iran can therefore be seen as quite liberal regarding stem cell research.
When it comes to religion and its impact on stem cell research in South Korea, it is comparable to Norway. Almost half of the population of approximately 49 million is non-religious, the other being mainly Christians and Buddhists. South Korea is a country where biotechnology is an important industry, and stem cell research is set as a government priority and receives large amounts of funds. The pressure of producing results, however, has been huge, something that may have been a contributing factor to the infamous Hwang scandal in 2005. The Hwang scandal was a huge set back, not only for the South Korean biotechnology community, but also across borders. The published results, which were later revealed as fake, gave such big hopes for a revolution in the medical field and treatment of difficult diseases, as well as a basis for a new and very lucrative industry. Although mostly negative, the scandal also had some positive effects on biotechnology research in South Korea. The establishment of the Bioethics and Safety Act set some clear laws and regulations for the research and use, and the field of stem cell research is once again flourishing. Once regarded as a country where stem cell research, especially with embryos, was very liberal, South Korea is now more in line with other western countries with strict laws and regulations.
Stem cells are also a hot topic in South-Africa, with three private stem cell banks storing umbilical cord blood and bone marrow. The stem cells stored can be used by the donor, or others that match, in case of an illness. One major draw-back is that most donations are made by Caucasians, and a match for people of black African descent is therefore difficult to find. The banks also execute research on therapeutic applications of stem cells. South-Africa allows creating human embryos especially for research, as well as therapeutic cloning, and their National Health Act clearly states what is allowed and not. This seems to be an excellent starting point for great development in stem cell research, but due to certain policies it is difficult to do much research.
It seems, that in the last couple of years several countries have softened to the idea of using stem cells for therapy, and new sets of regulations have been made. Policies and religion is tightly linked, but as important is funding, both private and governmental. Norway has the same legislations as other countries, but the lack of governmental backing has led to a slow development. This is also the situation in South-Africa. Governmental backing has led to a development in the field in both Iran and South-Korea, while stem cell researchers in the US heavily rely on private funding. This has given results, since the private sector in the US is both huge and wealthy, and three clinical trials are under way.