Kirk backs use of human embryos in quest for stem cell treatments

London, England - A CHURCH of Scotland committee has backed using human embryos for stem cell research in some circumstances.

The Kirk's Society, Religion and Technology Project decided it was ethical to use embryos created during IVF treatment if they were under 14 days old.

In the first major report in a decade from the church on the subject of embryo research, and the first on the science of stem cell treatment, project members said that embryos "may be used in medical research with a view to eventual treatments involving stem cells".

Leading experts in medical ethics have described the stance as "brave", but the report, which goes before the General Assembly next month, has already attracted criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, which said the Kirk was "starting down a dangerous path" by stating that the end justifies the means.

The committee has, however, opposed cloning and the deliberate creation of embryos for stem cell research "except into serious diseases and only under exceptional circumstance".

It has also taken a stance against the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos or human embryos that have been deliberately made non-viable. It will recommend the Church as a body should continue to press the government not to weaken the provisions of the UK legislative framework on embryology.

A key part of the report, and that likely to prove most contentious, is the assertion that embryos under 14 days old did not have the "moral status" of humans.

It says that although for some in the church "the embryo already has the same human dignity as a person who has been born", the majority of the working group took the view that "the moral status of the human embryo is not established until some time into its biological development after conception".

However, Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: "We don't accept the 14-day rule. If it is appropriate to conduct experiments at 14 days, why not 13 or 15? There's no logical reason not to as there is no particular important physiological change that takes place on that day. The moment you say it's OK to use embryos, the time is irrelevant."

Mr Kearney said the Kirk's willingness to accept the possible benefits from stem cell treatments gained through embryos was to enter into a discussion of "the ends justifying the means", which he described as "starting down a dangerous path".

"You have to look at the issue in China of using the organs of condemned prisoners in transplant operations," continued Mr Kearney.

"On the one hand somebody who may be very sick is being given a life saving treatment, but it's at the expense of the life of somebody else."

Dr Donald Bruce, convenor of the Kirk's project, said that the report, which took a year-and-a-half to compile, acknowledged that while IVF treatment had proved to be a difficult issue for the Kirk when it was raised first, the dilemmas arising from stem cell research were even more acute but had to be tackled.

He said: "The last major report was in 1996 involving IVF, but stem cell research was not there. It's been touched on in other small reports since then, but this is the first in-depth report the Kirk has done to stand back and look at the issues fully.

"Our view on them can be characterised as 'under the following circumstances' rather than 'not ever'."

Sheila McLean, professor of medical ethics at Glasgow University, described the Kirk's stance as "brave" and worthy of admiration.

"The Church's stance, while still being pretty conservative, could be considered radical for a faith group," she said.

But she questioned the distinction made between different types of embryos: "I'm not sure how they make the differentiation between using embryos created for research and those left over from IVF treatment.

"Perhaps it comes down to the fact that there the embryos used in IVF have a chance of becoming human beings rather than just being created for research, but it seems a touch utilitarian and perhaps an ethical sleight of hand.

"But I think the Church of Scotland is to be admired to be able to create this type of nuanced report, trying to make proposals about this type of thing rather than just condemning it like so many faith groups."