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Ethics of Human Embryo Research

Science and Human Dimension 2006

When the majority of EU ministers voted, after a bitter five-year wrangle, to grant funding for human embryonic stem cell research in July 2006, there were two remarkable consequences. First, it was widely reported by proponents of funding, for example Britain’s Science Minister Lord Sainsbury, that all arguments on the issue were now finally settled. “It is morally unacceptable to withhold advances from patients,” he commented in Brussels, “because it offers potentially tremendous advantages to European citizens.” At the same time the Catholic bishops of Europe, who, one would have thought, believed the arguments to be conclusively settled against funding, announced that the debate was not merely no over, but that it had hardly begun.

The aim of this conference was to explore the meaning of the term soul within the Judaic-Christian tradition to test strength of the Cartesian idea which is often taken for granted in the ethical debate: as in a human being is “ensouled” at the moment of conception.

Speakers included Nicholas Lash, former Norris Hulse Professor of Theology, University of Cambridge; Eamon Duffy, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge; John Rist on Augustine; Nicholas King on the New Testament; Ernan McMullin on the History of Science; David Albert Jones on human embryology ethics; Sir Anthony Kenny; Rahner scholar Karen Kilby; philosophical theologian, Janet Soskice; and ethicist Michael Banner. Scientists included Phil Jones of the Hutchison-MRC Centre, and John Gurdon.

The conclusions drawn by the scholars of religion were that the Christian and Judaic construals of the soul were not dualistic, and the ethics of development should, as far as possible, be seen as a process.

The papers and discussion of the conference are published by the Science and Human Dimension Project as Soul Searching.