Report on stem cell research flawed by lack of religious voice

Published April 1, 2002

LAST MONTH, the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR), the largest source of public funding for medical research in Canada, released its long-awaited guidelines on the use of embryonic stem cells for research. Needless to say the guidelines are controversial and sure to spark public debate.As I read through the documents, I found myself returning to the primate’s comments about the dangers of excluding religion from public life. Certainly, this was reflected in the guidelines. There was no religious voice on the committee that shaped them and consultation with religious organizations was minimal. This was particularly significant since one of the most controversial matters that needed to be addressed, the moral status of the early embryo, has been the subject of considerable debate within religious communities in Canada. Those rejecting religious voices may simply be trying to produce a level playing field by excluding positions that don’t command widespread public consent. They may be concerned that the presence of religious perspectives in the debate would amount to an attempt by believers to foist their opinions on the wider community. Yet the conclusions reached by CIHR don’t command wide consent either, and I think that the document reflects the costs involved in excluding the religious voice. The voice of ethics is present through a professional philosopher. However, while philosophers might be expected to bring precision of thought and clarity of argument to an ethical debate, reading this document makes it clear that these alone are not enough. Philosophical concerns with ethics have, almost since the beginning, been dominated by the search for clarity, a clarity that is to be achieved by identifying some single, simple principal that is at work in the moral life. What is the good? Different philosophers have answered this question differently. The trouble is that even to ask the question is to set us on a road that tries to reduce the complex realities that make up the moral life to single simple accounts of the underlying good that is at stake. What this approach tends to exclude is the plurality of values and perspectives that shape particular moral communities. The problem becomes even more acute in a country as complex and culturally diverse as Canada. The guidelines refer at several points to “the values of Canadians.” What are these values, or perhaps better, whose are these values? In my experience, Canadians reflect a diversity of values and opinions. Further, since some of this diversity reflects the cultural and religious heritages that make up Canadian society, we might well be tempted to respond by asking what happened to the much-vaunted notion of multiculturalism. When the cultural diversity of Canadians is reduced to a single set of values that are called Canadian, the mosaic has given way to the melting pot. Philosophical perspectives can also be subtly authoritarian. Put simply, if a given position is the one justified by “reason” then it is rational to simply exclude all alternatives as “irrational.” It is therefore not surprising that while some of those consulted by CIHR expressed concerns based on claims about the moral status of the embryo, these positions where not refuted, simply were not considered. Finally, not only do philosophical approaches fail to capture the complexity and diversity of the Canadian reality, they are also often elitist. If I ask whose values are being offered as Canadian values, the answer appears to be the values of a group of experts, chosen by a process that had no public consultation to define the values that will shape an important area of research in Canada with little public consultation and no public participation. Of course, the contributions of experts are essential, especially in an area as technically complex as this. Ideally, experts need to facilitate conversation and engagement in public debate. All too often they function to end debate, dismissing concerns that are expressed as naive, expressions of an ignorance that will vanish as knowledge grows. None of this is to say that the conclusions reached by the CIHR are wrong. But they should not be accepted simply because they have been proposed by experts. Canon Eric Beresford is consultant for ethics and interfaith relations for General Synod.


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