On a recent visit to Iran with a BBC film crew while making a television documentary series, I was allowed unrestricted access to a thoroughly modern research laboratory. The Royan Institute in Tehran is a place that is carrying out, by any sensible measure, world-class work in genetics, infertility treatment, stem cell research and animal cloning, all in an atmosphere of openness that was quite dramatically at odds with my expectations.
What struck me most was the way the state authorities overseeing the research - for it is certainly closely watched - seem to have dealt with the ethical minefields of parts of the work, in stark contrast to the vociferous opposition to it from some quarters in the West.
All well and good. But here comes trouble:
While at the Royan, I spoke with one of the imams who sits on their ethics committee. He explained that every research project proposed must be justified to and vetted by his committee to ensure that it does not conflict with Islamic teaching. Thus, while issues such as abortion are still restricted in Iran (it is allowed only when the mother's life is in danger), research on human embryos is encouraged.
I was certainly taken aback when he quite rightly pointed out that the only thing produced in embryonic stem cell research is a clump of cells, which is far from what could be defined as a human fetus.
According to Islamic teaching, I discovered, the fetus becomes a full human being only when it is "ensouled". This takes place anywhere between 40 and 120 days after conception, depending on various interpretations of the Qur'an. So the research at Royan is not seen as playing God, since it takes place long before the soul has entered the body of the unborn fetus.
But this kind of religious interference is precisely the problem. Sure, here this Imam and his committee has declared that this does not conflict with Islamic teaching. But what about other areas which they may find more controversial? Lets take, for example, work on early hominid species and human evolution. What if this research is interpreted by this committee to be in opposition to the story of Adam and Eve in the Qur'an. Will it be permitted? Will they allow research that clearly assumes that there is no such thing as a soul? Indeed the US lawmakers are being idiotic when they oppose stem cells research (and wait till we get Imam Palin in the White House). But science cannot really flourish when it is constantly at the mercy of some imam's decision to declare which projects conflict with Islamic teachings and which don't. So, yes, its great that Iran has this fantastic stem cell research program - it is certainly doing better than most Muslim countries, with the exception of perhaps Malaysia and Turkey - but lets not kid ourselves about the flourishing of science there. May be Iran is providing more freedom to researchers than we think it is. In that case, we will start seeing more Iranian names in basic sciences. Until then, its ok to skeptical of big claims.
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