Some remarks on the stem-cell debate from a Lutheran theologian in Germany

[1] 1. Biotechnology develops in cultural contexts, and not in isolation in the laboratory. At first glance, the driving forces behind biotechnology are the hard sciences: biological and medical research, new technologies and the interest in making a profit in an expanding sector of the economy: health care. But these developments have consequences that go far beyond the laboratory. New findings have an impact on how we understand ourselves as human beings and on how we live together. Technological developments compel us to reflect deeply on our understanding of ourselves and on our world views because there is no direct way to deduce social meaning from the biological structures of embryonic or fetal tissue.

[2] It is this cultural dimension – usually framed as ‘moral consequences’ – that is usually the starting point of the controversies. To give an example, Stanford University’s announcement in 2002 that it was launching an ambitious Cancer/Stem-Institute led by top researchers such as Irving Weissman drew immediate criticism. There were suspicions that the Stanford researchers were planning to use nuclear transplantation techniques. Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, condemned the university, saying: “Stanford has decided to proceed with cloning research without public scrutiny or deliberation, and has hurt the cause of public understanding on this subject by its confusion on the issue” (the distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning). A commentator wrote: “The backlash (against Stanford) is a hard lesson in the realities of the stem-cell debate. Science, religion, politics and ideology swirl around in a stew of competing arguments about the responsibilities and the dangers of using embryonic stem cells.”1

[3] The example demonstrates that those who are not sufficiently aware that biotechnology develops within a cultural context can quickly run into trouble. The primary task of ethics is more hermeneutical than normative. Ethics is the analysis of the ingredients of this stew and of how it is cooked. Hermeneutical competence is essential in ethics because proposals for action are deeply rooted in our interpretation of what ‘is’.2

[4] When it comes to assessing the risks and benefits of biotechnology, the tools of hard science don’t help much. The future is notoriously incalculable. It is no wonder that stem-cell researchers, who use the same tools as those used in the natural sciences, arrive at very different interpretations of the predictable consequences for the future of society.

[5] The national legislation governing human embryonic stem cell research (whether these exist or not, whether they are more permissive but strictly regulated as in Britain, or very restrictive as in Germany) illustrate well the impact of cultural differences. Legal regulations and moral rules are not identical, but they are connected more than liberal law professors working on the basis of strong secularization theories are willing to accept. The distinctions and the connections between the ethos of communities and their laws should become a more important topic in bioethics.

[6] All national legislation is rooted in the ethical and religious cultures of the countries in question. In Europe countries differ greatly depending on whether they have Roman Catholic or Protestant majorities. Some cultures are more receptive and open to new technologies than others, and some cultures are more sensitive to the possible risks and failures of new technologies than to the benefits.3 The ways in which western democracies deal with questions of trust versus mistrust, certainty versus uncertainty, political compromise versus clear and definite moral positions are clearly distinct, as shown by recent bioethical debates. As recently as December 2003, for example, the European Union failed in attempt to formulate a set of rules on financing embryonic research projects with community funds that were acceptable to all member states.

[7] 2. Distinctive types or forms of knowledge play a part in these ethical controversies, i.e: scientific knowledge, belief systems, orientational knowledge (Orientierungswissen), historical memory, prudence and wisdom. One type of knowledge cannot be reduced to another and neat divisions between rational and irrational or knowledge and belief no longer help to understand the discussions. Even hard sciences, as such, have to be understood as intepretive practices that are shaped by cultural patterns and specific image-worlds. Research in the history of science and in cultural studies shows that the natural sciences themselves are based on assumptions and values of a specific culture, that they are part of the social construction of reality and therefore cannot claim to produce objective knowledge that is independent of social contexts.

[8] The cultural dimension matters, and religion also matters because the two are closely intertwined. Even for people living in the so-called secularized countries of the western world, disease and health, birth and death are more than objective data. We need languages other than just the scientific explanatory language – symbols, images, narratives and rites – to be able to conduct our lives as human beings. Life and death, disease and health have always been central topics in religious communication. Insofar as theology is a reflection on religious communication, these topics also play a central role in theology.

[9] There is a reason why theologians such as Paul Ramsey and Joseph Fletcher played a pioneering role in the early phase of the research that today falls into the category of bioethics.4 Ramsey was also important in the establishment of the Kennedy Institute at Georgetown. Today medicine and biology define and redefine our understanding of these phenomena. Rather than solving them, the ever-growing discussion about medical ethics and bioethics indicates that there are other dimensions (for example: the meaning of disease in someone’s personal history) that cannot be ignored if we want to approach problems reasonably.

[10] The nature of suffering is not something we can grasp adequately with the objectivizing mode of natural sciences alone. To deal with this problem, we need, as Eric J. Cassell wrote: “an enlarged view of knowledge.”5 As the history of modern medicine shows, the natural science approach has been very successful in this area, but it has also placed limitations on understanding. Byron J. Good from Harvard Medical School addressed this problem and used E. Cassierer’s theory of symbolization as one pillar for a broader understanding of knowledge in his Medicine, Rationality and Experience.6 Good analyzed the processes whereby knowledge is formed, the interpretive activities in today’s medicine, and demonstrated the rationality of other modes a person might use to express the meaning of disease, eg: the narrative representation.

[11] Bioethics is not only a field where secularization theories occur, it is also a field where the religious dimension is ultimately difficult to ignore and theologians may have to contribute their experience in dealing with knowledge formation. Raanan Gillon (Imperial College, London) acknowledged the religious approaches to bioethics in the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics: “At their best, religions offer a firm grounding of firmly established positive general ethical stances in which people are educated to have clear and substantial general and specific ethical obligations whose fulfillment is a religious duty…indeed, bioethicists of different faiths may sigh wearily, even impatiently, as they see many of the wheels of bioethics being laboriously and separately reinvented by contemporary secular thinkers.”7

[12] We are only at the beginning of a process to develop more differentiated conceptual frameworks that enable us to analyze and better understand the complex cultural dimensions of such processes. This development must be interdisciplinary. So any claims to ‘truth’ by confessional traditions must be modest. When it comes to the religious dimension, one should always bear in mind that ‘religion’ is more than ‘ethics’ – more than just rules on how to act.

[13] 3. What influences the positions taken by theologians and church leaders in controversies about issues on the bioethics agenda? It is obvious: all theologians read the same texts in the Bible but reach different conclusions about what should be permitted or prohibited. More internal factors, such as doctrines and traditions, inform standpoints; e.g: creation, justification by grace, or the ideas of the natural law tradition. There is still a strong tendency in the theological interpretive practices to favor reductionist modes of understanding. Every possible ethical question has to be related to one or two basic ideas or principles. This mode of interpretation may help to anchor new questions in their own theological tradition, but it is not very helpful in communicating with others who might not speak the same language as members of that particular “tribe.”

[14] Broader cultural traditions also have an impact. It makes a difference if principles such as ‘autonomy’ or ‘human dignity’ are understood in the context of a strict deontological theory, such as Kant, or in utilitarian contract-theories, or in the context of moral sense theories, of an Aristotelian teleological ontology, or in the context of more “pragmatic” approaches. Even if there is a strong tendency in bioethics towards applied ethics, the foundational questions still influence how positions are formed.

[15] But social conditions are also important. In his Social Teachings of Christian Churches, E. Troeltsch showed that the type of social organization of a religious group influences ethical judgments. It makes a difference if it is a big church at the centre of society or a small group on the periphery that has limited access to core institutions. For example, John Polkinghorne, a professor of mathematical physics and an ordained Anglican priest, played a decisive role in the formation of institutions in England which monitor and regulate research in human fertilization and genetics. Also in England, the archbishop of Oxford was elected chairman of a House of Lords commission that prepared a report on stem-cell research.8 This would not be possible in France with its model of laicite, where a bishop may be “a man who writes books but is not an intellectual.”9 In Germany, meanwhile, bishops and theologians have been members of all the government commissions established in the last five years.10

[16] These examples merely demonstrate that the role played by ethical traditions in the political realm depends a lot on the cognitive maps of the agenda-setting intellectual elites of a country and their presuppositions about the relations between modern culture and religion.

[17] Of course, the question as to what churches and theologians can contribute also has a ‘materialistic’ dimension. Small churches with only a few pastors who have a basic education attained through attending seminaries or at university may not be able to contribute much in the way of theologicalr eflection to such debates. Does a church have the resources, the structures and the money necessary to organize discussion processes on controversial issues such as embryo research or cloning? In postwar Germany the Protestant academies provided the platforms for controversial debates in society.

[18] In such processes, two key questions always emerge: should the church act more as a forum for ethical controversies and organize dialogues where representatives of the polarized viewpoints in the debate can meet to look for common ground for further action? Or should the church be taking sides? Should it take a more prophetic role and become a strong factor that influences the debate in one direction?

[19] How much emphasis is given to the understanding of God “as a power that creates new possibilities for human well-being in events of nature and history, including the possibilities that emerge in the course of evolution and the development of biological knowledge.”11 The more dominant the attitude that the future will bring only risks, the more one will demand restrictions or at least a moratorium. The line between necessary precaution and pessimism in principle can quickly become very small, and it is and will always be a risky enterprise to try to define that line on the basis of a specific case. James M. Gustafson described the necessary balance as “moral realism within the context of hope.”12

[20] 4. Three remarks on the potential of Lutheran theology for an approach to bioethics. One of the cultural effects of the Reformation was a new attitude towards the reality outside the church. Seen from that perspective, mere church-politics in the field of bioethics would be wrong – even if there is a lot of pressure on institutions in pluralistic societies to make visible the exact nature of their special competence. To put it simply: God has always to be understood first as the creator and not as the founder of a separate institution such as a church. This basic conviction is an impulse to avoid confessional narrow-mindedness, and an impulse to broaden perspectives and perceptions.

[21] One pragmatic implication of this theological understanding of reality as creation was that Luther regarded everyday life as an important place of worship. He criticized Roman Catholic ethics as having a doctrine of double standards, and emphasized the Christian’s calling in the world. (The German term for this calling is Beruf).

[22] An important place to follow one’s vocation in modern societies is the broad field of scientific research. An example of an attitude that has been informed by this understanding is the statement of the presiding ELCA bishop Mark Hanson in response to an inquiry from Dr. Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council of Bioethics. “Science and genetic medicine and so forth are good gifts that are part of the created order and are to be pursued for their potential for good.” “Yes, but…..” I assume is the normal reaction. Perhaps we in the churches need a better understanding of the highly differentiated field of science, which we can gain only through an intensive communication with scientists and not via communication about them.

[23] Another consequence of this impulse is that, from a Lutheran perspective, other institutions, such as political ones, have a legitimacy that does not depend on the appreciation of either theologians or churches. This theologically legitimate independence has consequences for the understanding of the ethical discourses. Ethics has two levels: one is the field of the issues that are in discussion, eg: stem-cell research. The second is the value of the structures of the political process itself. These structures are tools that help to make it possible to live together even when there are fundamental controversies. Procedures are of high ethical value under the conditions of pluralistic societies. In their communication, churches have a responsibility not only for the issues. They are also responsible for the way in which they communicate with the public about these issues. They set an example for the style of any discussion, and they should communicate in a way that permits deliberation.

[24] The normal result of democratic, parliamentary procedures will be a compromise. Church people like so-called definite answers and solutions. However, in the midst of dilemmas we always start with ethical reasoning and ethics do not guarantee to solve these dilemmas. So compromise is an essential component of ethics that requires more theological reflection.

[25] In the Christian tradition of ethical reasoning, the impulse to broaden the perception and perspectives is closely linked to natural law theories. Such theories have always aimed to articulate what should be recognized as universally valid. Natural law theories are the search for comprehensive approaches that aim to define those norms which are acceptable to everybody. Natural law theories are a set of questions that arise in every ethical debate rather than a set of answers. As such, however, they are an important hermeneutical tool for analyzing “patterns of moral complexity” (Charles E. Larmore).13

[26] The discussion about which role theological arguments can or should play in bioethics prompts questions which were reflected in natural law theories. Luther, and even more Melanchthon, used natural law arguments. They were an integral part of the Protestant tradition, eg: Pufendorf or Grotius. Since Barth natural law has provoked controversy in Protestant ethics, and a new evaluation is necessary.14

[27] Language and communication played a key role in the theology of the Reformation fathers. It is helpful to focus on this dimension in the battles of bioethics and biopolitics. These battles are often fought over definitions, e.g.: what is the appropriate definition of embryo or totipotency? The analysis of the role played by language and rhetorical strategies should be an essential part of bioethics. The implication is that theologians, religious communities and churches should reflect more on the power and limitations of their own language, narratives and images when using them in the public square.

[28] The focus on language and communication in Reformation theology was a move against an ontology, where the concept of ‘substance’ played a foundational role. In Reformation theology the emphasis is on ‘relation’. The focus is not so much on what an entity is per se – regardless of its relations to others. It is rather that what an entity ‘is’ is defined through its relations.

[29] Seen from this perspective, the whole pattern of the debate on the status of the embryo is misleading. It focuses on the fertilized egg as an entity in itself; the relations that are crucial for its further development are practically left out of the ethical deliberation. But it makes a significant difference if the embryo is seen in relation to its mother’s womb or on a petri dish. Today we are seeing the rebirth of a natural teleology through argumentations that seek their justifications in the results of developmental biology (potentiality argument). Science proceeds with generalizing theories. We want to protect individual life. It is questionable whether a scientific approach that neglects the relations that constitute individuality (to borrow from Scheiermacher, individuality is the point of intersection of relations) will enable us to develop plausible regulations for the handling of the embryo. From my point of view, a fundamental hermeneutical question is relevant to the ways in which Protestant theologians engage in bioethics. Do we read Luther as a principle-oriented thinker? Is the doctrine of justification really the solution to all problems? Or is Luther’s theology more of a rhetorical phenomenon, full of rich descriptions of the human condition? The principle-oriented interpretation takes much of its inspiration from 19th century idealism.

[30] But Luther is more rooted in the rhetorical and voluntaristic than in the rationalising tradition.15 We should not reduce Luther’s theology to a few doctrinal statements. He was a forceful preacher and songwriter, a translator who appealed “to what the crowd knows.” He wanted to speak “simply, clearly and openly” so that everyone could understand. Affections and virtues or vices are a focal point of this rhetorical tradition. Luther’s theology is not about abstract ideas and concepts but about fear and trust, uncertainty and hope, and the joy and grief of everyday life. It is a model for understanding the human condition as one full of polarities and tensions. It takes seriously the complexity, contradictions and paradoxes in our feelings, experiences and perceptions. There is much more to it than ‘reason’ and ‘logic’. It does not work with linear deductions or reductions from or to one or two principles. An integral part of this theology is a rich anthropology, full of ‘thick descriptions’ of human life. This is the foundation for sensitivity towards the individual person, the individual case and the individual set of circumstances. ‘Love’ and ‘Epikeia’ are keywords in an approach to ethics that is inspired by this tradition. It tends more towards a kind of ‘situational ethics’ that demands prudence and wisdom grounded in experience.

[31] In his book, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, (2002), Leon Kass has placed the questions of anthropology at the center of his arguments.16 This book is important because it challenges whether or not we are concerned with the ‘real problems.’ For Kaas, dignity is more than “reason and freedom.” A necessary part of bioethics is a proper anthropology17 that takes seriously that we are “embodied human life…creatures of need and finitude, and hence of longing and attachments.” He also refers to “biblical religion” as an important “source of a richer and fuller teaching about the whole of human life.”18 He uses biblical texts as a resource that offers “profound insight into the basis of our respect for human life.” This approach focuses on a dimension of bioethics where theologians can make a meaningful contribution.

[32] 5. The different standpoints that are held in the churches and in the political sphere in Europe make it hard to give an overview.

[33] Europe has been struggling to come up with regulations ever since the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of the Human Being with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine (Orviedo Convention 04.IV. 1997). This text is a mixture of law and ethics. Its main task is to formulate basic principles which have to be complemented by specific protocols in particular fields.

[34] The first draft of the convention was presented as long ago as 1994. It stimulated wide and controversial debate throughout Europe. The roots of the argument date back to the mid-1980s, when a Committee of Experts on Bioethics Issues was appointed by the Committee of Ministers to the European Union, the decision-making body of the Council which consists of representative ministers from the member states.

[35] Today the Orviedo Convention has still not been signed by all the member states. Successive German governments have been unable to sign it because of harsh criticism voiced by the churches. The controversial issue is the regulations governing research involving incapacitated persons, which some commentators saw as opening the door for research without informed consent.19 (Article 17 – Protection of persons not able to consent to research – see appendix and the formulation on embryo research).20

[36] Where the law allows research on embryos in vitro, it shall ensure adequate protection of the embryo. The creation of human embryos for research purposes is prohibited. Meanwhile, an Additional Protocol on the Prohibition of Cloning Human Beings (January 1998) was drafted.21 Ethics advisors were involved in all discussions at the level of the Committee for Ministers of the EU and the Parliamentary Assembly, and the Conference of European Churches issued statements.22 But the EU is dominated by the French model of the separation of religion and politics, and this made it difficult for European churches to gain access to the decision-making process in the EU administration.

[37] In Germany, the debates are centred around the Constitution (particularly the basic rights as they are articulated in Articles 1 and 2).

[38] Article 1:
Human dignity shall be inviolable. To protect and respect it shall be the duty of all state authority.

[39] The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and justice in the world.

[40] Article 2 (personal freedoms): Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does nto violate the rights of others or offend against the institutional order or the moral law.

[41] The churches have turned these articles into pillars of a kind of theory of civil religion. They make constant references to these articles, particularly to the concept of ‘dignity’. They combine them with their own rhetoric about man as the ‘image of God’ and a Kantian deontology. On the basis of this religious-political foundation they oppose all ‘utilitarianism’ and all research strategies that appear to reduce human beings to a means for others’ goals. Every ‘manipulative action has to be ‘absolutely excluded.’

[42] The other important legal regulation in Germany is the Embryo Protection Act of 1991.23 This law established a legal definition of an embryo. It defines an embryo as: ‘a fertilized human egg capable of development from the moment of fusion of the nuclei.’ Any totipotent egg removed from an embryo is also defined as ‘an embryo.’ The churches defend this law as the proper and effective tool to ‘defend the dignity of every human being.’

[43] The most recent relevant document was the Stem Cell Act (Stammzellgesetz), which took effect on 1 July, 2002. After a long and heated public debate the law was approved by the German parliament. As a result of the parliamentary decision-making process, the law is a compromise. It balances the different legal positions and ethical evaluations between protection of the embryo and the freedom of research.24 The law bans the import and use of human embryonic stem cells in principle, but exceptions are made for research purposes under strict conditions. The import of stem cells is permitted under the following conditions:

[44] Alternative forms of research have been exhausted;
Use is permitted only of stem cell lines that were created before 1 January 2002 from surplus embryos created for reproduction and which were not used for reasons other than research.

[45] The research project must serve highly important scientific findings; the aim of the project must have been assessed by the ethics committee.

[46] The Robert Koch Institute, a research facility of the Federal Health Ministry, was given the responsibility of licensing the import of and research on human ES cells. The Government has also appointed an interdisciplinary ethics committee that, together with the RKI, evaluates applications from researchers who want to import human ES cell lines. The ethics committee consists of two biologists, two ethicists, three physicians, and two theologians (one Roman Catholic and one Protestant).

[47] In a joint statement, the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD) and the Catholic Bishops Conference expressed their deep disappointment and strong criticism of the parliament’s decision, which they said contradicts the basic principles of the fundamental law: “The right to life and unlimited protection of a human being from the moment of fertilization onwards can no longer be guaranteed,” the statement said.

[48] 6. In Germany bioethical discussions have a special dimension because the memory of National Socialist rule plays a role in all ethical considerations. During those years human life was destroyed for ‘research purposes’. During the debates on the Convention a German minister commented: ‘Precisely because of history, we Germans have a particular duty in the field of bioethics.’ The Diakonische Werk, the main headquarters of the diaconal branch of Protestant churches, which employ more than 400.000 people, published a statement against the possibility of carrying out research without any direct benefit for an incapacitated person. ‘How close the danger is for abuse in research and science became quite clear in the concentration camps and through the euthanasia project of the National Socialist tyranny.’

[49] Again, it is history and memory – the cultural dimension – that matters. All the well-known arguments against instrumentalization, the violation of human dignity, the danger of selection and euthanasia, “slippery slope” arguments and the patterns of the status of the embryo debate and so on, are constantly reiterated by representatives of the churches in the bioethics discussion.

[50] In the German context, churches means the Roman Catholic church and the organization of Protestant Churches (EKD).25 A majority of the population, 65%, still belong to these institutions. The churches also run a high percentage of welfare networks, such as Caritas and Diakonie, which have an influence in German political culture. But, do all church members agree with the points of view put forward by the leading representatives? In the Protestant churches, theologians working as ethicists at
universities published an opinion contrary to that of the Protestant church in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A statement by Bishop W. Huber about this ‘dissenting voice’ illustrates just how controversial it was to conduct this discussion within German Protestantism: the bishop condemned it as ‘an abuse of the Protestant notion of freedom.’26

[51] So far, I have talked about the role of the churches in the public debates that have focused on the political decision-making process. I have not touched on the distinctive contribution of a Lutheran bioethics. Of course, the organization of Lutheran Churches (VELKD) has also published statements on bioethical issues (e.g.: the conference of Lutheran bishops in March 2001). But the substance of the Lutheran position does not differ from that of the EKD or the Roman Catholic church when it comes to the question of research using blastocytes/embryos that will never be implanted in a woman’s womb.

[52] If you study the documents of the EKD, you see that all the important statements in the public realm express shared ecumenical positions. This ecumenical cooperation in the field of bioethics had already begun when politicians and legal experts prepared the Embryo Protection Act. In 1989 the churches published a joint declaration entitled: God loves all lives. Challenges and tasks for the protection of human life. This document contains all the arguments that still guide the statements made by the churches today. At the center of these arguments is the reference to the religious-political notion of the ‘image of God’.

[53] “The idea of mankind created in ‘the image of God’ originates from the first biblical theory of creation (Genesis 1, 26f). According to today’s accepted interpretation of Genesis 1, 26f, its original meaning was to indicate that mankind had been appointed God’s representative and vice-regent for the created world. Historically, however, Genesis 1, 26f has been understood by the church to denote a wider interpretation of mankind being made in the image of God. Thus, in the spiritual world of Christianity, the notion has become central to references to the special dignity of man’s life. Article 1, section 1, of the German Constitution can be understood in this tradition”.

[54] This notion of human dignity is also applied to prenatal human life: “Embryonic research has led to the clear conclusion that from the moment of the coalescence of the egg cell and the sperm cell a living being exists, which can in the course of its development become nothing other than a human being…”

[55] The embryo has the same “potential of unlimited exercise of humanity….from the beginning; unborn life has the same claim on protection as life after birth (deliberate operations which allow for its damage or destruction as a side effect are not acceptable, however important the aims which the research wishes to achieve.”

[56] Therefore, ‘even the smallest movement in the direction of allowing research which makes use of embryos as ”expendable” crosses a fundamental boundary. It is a question of the protection of supreme values, in the last resort of the reverence for humanity and every person’s right to life, which are anchored in Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution.’

[57] One last church document has to be mentioned. In August 2002 the EKD issued a document entitled: To deal with Life in the Spirit of Love. This text, the result of a long discussion process, contains further discussion of a wide range of topics.27 The document presents the arguments for the two positions on the protection of the pre-implantation embryo that are articulated by a majority of church leaders (every embryo has an intrinsic value in the strongest sense) and the position of the aforementioned group of university Protestant ethicists. (the pre-implantation embryo that is no longer part of the parental project has a significant but not an absolute value).

[58] The underlying assumptions that guide these two positions require further analysis and reflection. I would like to highlight two relevant points:
the first is the different opinions about the function of religious language and imagery, and how a language can be related to the scientific descriptions of developmental biology.

[59] The second is the anthropological dimension. In Protestantism nothing similar to the natural-tradition of the Roman Catholic church exists even though Protestant church leaders accepted the Roman Catholic position on research on pre-implantation embryos.

[60] In Germany at least, one can conclude, there exists a new ‘ecumenical dogma’: An absolute and inviolable dignity of human life beings with the fertilization of an egg-cell. This interpretation goes beyond Article 1 of the Basic Law because the highest court (the Bundesverfassungsgericht) has not decided whether the pre-implantation blastocyte is the bearer of inviolable rights. However, this position is not capable of achieving consensus within the broad context of European Protestant churches. The ecumenical task – in the sense of exchanging arguments on the positions of the different Protestant churches – still lies far ahead. So does the discussion about the cultural dimensions of bioethical standards.

[61] German churches acted as a pressure group for one position in the controversies and helped to fuel the discussions with suspician and mistrust. Theologically speaking, one is entitled to ask whether this reflects a proper understanding of the role of the church.

[62] The work of institutes such as the Society of Religion and Technology Project,28 of the Church of Scotland, or the Institute of Technology, Theology, and Natural Sciences at Munich (30), which is partly sponsored by the Lutheran Church of Bavaria, are good examples of a different approach.

[63] This approach is more orientated towards dialogue and recognizes that no position can avoid ambiguity. Theologians at least should know that ‘absolute truth’ is nothing, finite human beings can receive insight. Trust in God might not be our smallest resource we have to live with ambiguities in the midst of the choices we need to make.


The Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine

Article 6 of the Convention – Protection of persons not able to consent

1. Subject to Articles 17 and 20 (below), an intervention may be carried out on a person who does not have the capacity to consent only for his or her direct benefit.

Article 17 – Protection of persons not able consent to research

Research on a person without the capacity to consent as stipulated in Article 5 may only be undertaken if all the following conditions are met:

Exceptionally and under the protective conditions prescribed by law, where the research does not have the potential to produce results of direct benefit to the healing of the person concerned, such research may be authorized subject to the conditions laid down in paragraph I, sub paragraphs I, iii, IV and V above, and to the following additional conditions – the research has the aim of contributing through significant improvement in the scientific understandign of the individual condition, disease or disorder, to the ultimate attainment of results capable of conferring benefit to the person concerned or to other persons in the same category or afflicted with the same disease or disorder or having the same condition.

II the research entails only minimal risk and minimal burden for the individual concerned.

End Notes

1. Christopher Vaughan, and Kevin Cool: Cell Division, in: Stanford Magazine May/June 2003.

2. With ‘what is’ I don’t mean some unreflected ontological assumptions about reality. I only want to indicate that every moral statement is rooted in convictions about something we take for granted. David Tracy once wrote “reality is, what we name our best interpretation” (Plurality and Ambiguity, 1987, p. 48).

3. Minou Bernadette Friele (ed.) Embryo Experimentation in Europe. Bio-medical, Legal and Philosophical Aspects, February 2001 (Europäische Akademie Grey Seris Nr. 24).( The best Overview is no available in Davor Solter et al. Embryo Research in Pluralistic Europe, Berlin et a. 2003. This book does not only give an overview over “The Regulation of Embryo Research in Europe: Situation and Prospects with three Case Studies” (UK, Spain Germany). It also evaluates available data about attitudes towards science and technology in European societies. “In all countries, the scientific community is perceived as one of the groups with the highest contribution to human progress, along with medical doctors …Politicians and the clergy are at the opposite extreme” (167). The study also presents material about the impact of religious beliefs. “In six of the nine countries, the position that finds the greatest approval, is the one that ascribes to a human embryo a few days old the same moral condition as to a human being. These are countries with very large Catholic majorities, where the Roman Catholic Church plays an active cultural role” (178).

4. For Albert R. Jonsen, The Birth of Bioethics, New York Oxford 1998, the book of P. Ramsey The Patient as Person.Explorations in Medical Ethics(1970) “deserves to be ranked as the first truly modern study of the new ethics of science and medicine” (50).

5. Eric J. Cassell,The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, New York and Oxford 1991, xv.

6. Cambridge 1994.

7. Rennin Gillon, article “Bioethics, Overview,” in: Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Volume 1. San Diego a. o. 1998, p. 305-317, 312.

8. House of Lords Stem Cell Research Committee Publication presented 13. February 2002.

9. Statement of a French sociologist on a small conference P. L. Berger organized on secularization in Europe in Berlin.

10. Bishop W. Huber from the Berlin-Brandenburg-Church, who is also a renown Professor of Ethics was until his election as chairman of the EKD last year a member of the Ethics Council (Nationaler Ethikrat) that was established by Chancellor G. Schröder ( Huber is followed in that position by the Vice-president of the EKD Hermann Barth. Another member of that council is Richard Schroeder from the Humboldt University in Berlin. The German Parliament (Bundestag) established in the last and in the running electoral term Study Commissions (Enquete-Kommissionen) on “Law and Ethics in Modern Medicine” (2000-2002) and “Ethics and Law in Modern Medicine” where Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians are members. Also in Switzerland and Austria theologians are members of advisory boards and government commissions. (

11. James M. Gustafson: The Contribution Of Theology To Medical Ethics, Milwaukee 1975, p 44.

12. Gustafson, Contribution 48.

13. Still important is the analysis of the fundamental role of natural-law theories in the history of Christian ethics that Ernst Troeltsch undertook in his Social Teachings of the Christian Churches. Its range of influence reaches to H.R. Niebuhr’s Classic Christ and Culture (1951) and James M. Gustafsons recent book An Examined Faith (2004). Gustafson: “the agenda of classic liberal Protestant theology is not superseded by subsequent theological fashions, though its constructive proposals are inadequate” (ibid p 78) And in the note to this sentence: “I vividly recall Wilhelm Pauck´s final words at the end of a 1951 course on theology since Schleiermacher, ‘Barth has not answered Troeltsch; he has only bypassed him'” (p. 115).

14. An interesting attempt of reevaluation was e.g. the work of a “Ecumenical Group” that was constituted 1939 in Chicago after the “Oxford Conference” Members where James Luther Adams, Edwin E. Aubrey, Wilhelm Pauck, Paul Ramsey, John T. Mc. Neill. John T. McNeill: “Natural Law in the Thought of Luther,” in: Church History Vol X (1941), p. 211-227; James Luther Adams, “The Law of Nature: Some General Considerations,” in: Journal of Religion Vol. 25 (1945) p. 88-118; another attempt was Emil Brunner’s book Justice (deutsch 1943); Gene H. Outka, Paul Ramsey (ed.) Norm and Context in Christian Ethics (1968), “Part Two – Natural Law: A Reassessment of the Tradition,” p. 139 ff..

15. Ulrich Nembach, “Predigt des Evangeliums.” Luther als Prediger, Pädagoge und Rhetor, 1972; George A. Kennedy; Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, 1980; Marjorie O`Rourke Boyle, Rhetoric and Reform: Erasmus` Civil Dispute with Luther, 1983; Birgit Stolt, Martin Luthers Rhetorik des Herzens, 2000;

16. Kaas ibid p. 20. “What is urgently needed is a richer, more natural biology and anthropology, one that does full justice to the meaning of our peculiarly human union of soul and body in which low neediness and divine-seeking aspiration are concretely joined.”

17. The last solid overview over the Protestant positions was prepared at the Interdisciplinary Research Institute, that is sponsored by the EKD, the FESt in Heidelberg: Hartwig von Schubert, Evangelische Ethik und Biotechnologie, 1991; Jürgen Hübner, Hardwig von Schubert (ed.) Biotechnologie und evangelische Ethik. Die internationale Diskussion, 1992. (

18. Kaas ibid, note on p. 239.

19. Article 6 of the Convention – Protection of persons not able to consent

20. Article 18 – Research on embryos in vitro

21. Article 1. Any intervention seeking to create a human being genetically identical to another human being whether living or dead, is prohibited.

22. For example from the Working Group on Bioethics of European Churches Church and Society Commission. (

23. A good overview over the way that led to the act and about its content is given in the commentary: Rolf Keller, Hans-Ludwig Günther, Peter Kaiser, Embryonenschutzgesetz, 1992.

24. Basic law Article 5 sentence (3) “Art and scholarship, research, and teaching shall be free”.

25. The EKD now has an English webside with some translated documents:

26. W. Huber: In Verantwortung vor Gott und den Menschen, in: Deutsches Pfarrerblatt 11/2002 S. 559 – 565, 564.The group of ethicists published a book with more detailed arguments for their opinion: Streitfall Biomedizin. Urteilsfindung in christlicher Verantwortung, hg. V. Reiner Anselm und Ulrich H. J. Körtner mit einer Einführung von Trutz Rendtorff, Göttingen 2003.

27. PND, PID, research with “surplus-embryos,” cloning, assisted suicide, reflections about the understanding of “medicine” and its task.