Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the Rights of a Foetus: A Shia Muslim Perspective from Iran

INTRODUCTION: The piece below by Zayn Syed is an edited version of his original essay that was shortlisted for the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize. The Wellcome Trust is a UK based charity funding institution for research to improve human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. In addition to funding biomedical research, it supports the public understanding of science. In the field of medical research, it is the world’s second largest private funder after Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About stem cells: Stem cells are single cells with two unique qualities–they can make endless copies of themselves and they can mature into a variety of specialized cells. These qualities make them promising new tools in medicine, allowing patients to receive needed cells or tissues or have diseased cells or tissues replaced with healthy ones. Grown in the lab, genetically repaired if needed and coaxed to become a specific tissue, stem cells could allow doctors to patch a scarred heart, reawaken damaged nerves or reboot an immune system incapable of fighting infection. Stem cells are also very valuable to scientists in understanding human disease… explanation of stem cells from the website of the Boston Children’s Hospital. See link at end of article.

By Zain Syed

Human Embryo exposing the embryonic cells. Credit: Yorgos Nikas. Wellcome Images.

Human Embryo exposing the embryonic cells. Credit: Yorgos Nikas. Wellcome Images.

In 2006, praises of Allah and the Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) erupted from a delivery room at the Royan Research Centre in the Iranian city of Isfahan to celebrate the successful birth of the Middle East’s first cloned sheep, Royana. [1] The story of how this, among many other achievements in the field of embryonic stem cell research, has taken place in a country governed by orthodox Shariah law is quite extraordinary.

History saw a time when the Persian empire was the pinnacle of scientific advancement. However in 1979, a revolution led by Ayatollah Sayed Ruhollah Khomeini against western-backed Shah Pahlavi resulted in a significant ‘brain drain’ – the emigration of highly trained individual. Yet in 2003, men and women at the Royan Institute in Tehran celebrated making Iran the 10th country in the world to have successfully established a human Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) line, named ‘Royan H1’ – how did they get away with this?

The answer is simple: they didn’t have to. In 2002, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, openly supported human ESC research in issuing the ‘stem cell fatwa’, an official declaration that Shiite Islam is not only consistent with, but encourages human ESC technology for therapeutic uses. [2]

Ayatollah Ahmed Mubaligh, an influential cleric residing in the city of Qum, Iran’s centre of Islamic learning, explained that:

“At one point in its development, the soul enters the embryo and is considered a living human being … we don’t consider elimination of the undifferentiated embryonic cell as murder; there is nothing but a possibility of these cells to develop into a human being.” [2]

Essentially, a line is being drawn here between potential and actual life. Most Shiite jurists agree that ensoulment occurs at 120 days post fertilisation, as highlighted by the Qur’an and the hadith. [1]

Does Iranian society therefore only have a duty to respect and protect the rights of a foetus after 120 days post-fertilisation? The majority of Iranian jurists clarify that the soulless embryo still deserves respect, though to a lesser degree. This is exemplified by the fact that the legal punishment for an unlawful abortion before 120 days is less severe than one after. [3]

Ironically, while Iranian scientists were celebrating their success in 2003, U.S. scientists were calling for a lift on the ban of state funding for new human ESC research imposed by former President George W. Bush in 2001. [4] As a result, ESC research in the US during this time took place primarily in the private sector. This veto has since been revoked by President Barack Obama. [5] Hassan Ashktorab of Howard University Cancer Centre, Washington DC commented that, “Policies that may be classified as liberal in the American political system seem to be common sense to Iranian politicians.” [6]

Ethical guidelines issued by the Iranian Ministry of Health and Education specify that only embryos less than 14 days old left over from IVF treatment are to be used for research, which must ultimately be destroyed. The law prohibits both the production of human-animal hybrid embryos and the misuse of genetic screening for eugenic purposes. [7] These regulations are in line with western regulatory measures.

Potentially, Human ESC research has tremendous scope for improving treatments for diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes or spinal cord injuries. This is recognised in Iran at the highest level; in the words of Ayatollah Mubaligh, “If we don’t benefit from stem cell research, then we have a humanitarian problem.”

In 2005, scientists at the Royan Institute severed the spinal cord of a mouse, paralysing its lower body. The mouse then received an injection of human ESCs, which resulted in partial movement of the legs after six days and a full restoration of movement after 28 days. This put Iran among just five countries to have successfully carried out this experiment. [2]

Despite enthusiasm among the latest batch of budding scientists being produced by Iranian universities, religious justification and support from the state at the highest level, scientific advancement is still hindered. International sanctions have prevented Iranian laboratories from buying US-manufactured resources and equipment, as many US companies have been banned from selling to Iran by the US treasury over fears that such materials could be harnessed for nuclear technology. [2]

It seems then that human ESC research, like many fields of modern science, is encouraged in Iranian society. Contrary to western perceptions, this does not clash with its Islamic doctrine. Although many believe that science and religion have conflicting interests, perhaps the two have always been reflections of a universal goal to achieve physical, social, intellectual and spiritual prosperity.

Date posted: December 6, 2012.

Reproduced with the courtesy of the Wellcome Trust. Please visit their website by clicking http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/

Tha above piece was posted on the Wellcome Trust Blog under the title “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research in the Islamic Republic of Iran – a paradox?” For article at source, please click Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.


[1] M Saniei, R DeVries. Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Iran: status and ethics. Indian J Med Ethics (2008) Oct-Dec;5(4).

[2] Frontline World Iran: the Stem Cell Fatwa, science and religion’s unlikely union (2009).

[3] B Larijani, F Zahedi. Changing parameters for abortion in Iran. Indian J Med Ethics (2006) Oct-Dec;3(4).

[4] Q & A: US stem cell debate. BBC News 9th March 2009.

[5] Obama ends stem cell funding ban. BBC News 9th March 2009.

[6] Iran at the forefront of medical research. The Washington Times, 14th April 2009.

[7] F Zahedi, B Larijani. National bioethical legislation and guidelines for biomedical research in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bulletin of the World Health Organization (2008) 86:630–63.

About the Royan Institute in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Royan Institute is a public non-governmental non-profitable organization established in 1991 by the late Dr. Saeid Kazemi Ashtiani as a research institute for Reproductive Biomedicine and infertility treatments. In 1998 this institute was approved by Ministry of Health as Cell Based Research Center. Now this institute acts as leader of Stem Cell research and also one of the best clinics for infertility treatment. Tolearn more, please click http://www.royaninstitute.org/.

Read more about stem cells at the Boston Children’s Hospital website by clicking  http://stemcell.childrenshospital.org/about-stem-cells/


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2 thoughts on “Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the Rights of a Foetus: A Shia Muslim Perspective from Iran

  1. In 1983, at the opening of the Aga Khan Health Services’ Singal Medical Centre in Giligit, Paksitan, His Highness the Aga Khan made the following comment, giving his view on the relationship between a fertilized egg and a child:

    “Children need to be cared for from the time they are conceived until they reach maturity and I strongly advise expectant mothers to come here regularly.”

    Click to access 2010.08.28-ShortQuote.pdf

    Singal Medical Centre Opening Ceremony (Gilgit, Pakistan) 14 May 1983

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