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Russia: The Orthodox Church And The Stem-Cell Debate

  • Julie Corwin

The Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch Aleksii II. The church is opposed to fetal stem cells being used for research or cosmetic purposes While the United States is embroiled in a debate at the highest political and scientific levels over the ethics of stem-cell research, discussion of the issue in Russia is much quieter. However, the use -- and possible abuse -- of stem-cell therapy is having a more tangible effect on the life of at least some wealthy urban dwellers, And the Russian Orthodox Church is unambiguous in its opposition to human cloning and the use of fetal and embryonic stem cells for medical research.

Like the Vatican, the Russian Orthodox Church believes that human life begins at conception or with the fertilization of a cell. In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta-religii," No. 23, 2001, Father Antonii Ilin, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, declared that "any activities with embryos leading to the destruction of the embryos goes against canon law and is equivalent to murder." In an article in "Again" in October 2004, Father John Breck of St. Vladimir's Seminary explained that although some scientists believe that the use of embryonic stem cells in research holds extraordinary potential for developing therapies and medicines that could combat a broad range of diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, ALS, muscular dystrophy, and AIDS, the Russian Orthodox faithful must honor the admonition of the Apostle Paul in when he said in the Bible, Romans 3:8: "We may not do evil so that good might come."

But the views of the Russian Orthodox Church and the everyday practices of Russian society are frequently at odds. The Russian Orthodox Church also opposes abortion, yet Russia still manages to have one of the highest abortion rates in the world. And, in the case of stem cells, Russia is one of the few places where experimental stem-cell therapy is easily accessible for those with deep enough pockets.
Smirnov believes there is a criminal trade in fetuses that are obtained from poor women in Russia and Ukraine who are persuaded to have late abortions. "The women are paid about $200 to have a cesarean at about 15 weeks and the fetus is then passed on to a clinic."


In recent months, a series of articles in both the Western and Russian press have documented a growing business peddling the miraculous benefits of fetal stem cells to roll back the signs of aging. The proprietor of one sleek clinic in Moscow openly admitted in a series of interviews with a variety of media outlets that what he is doing is skirting the edge of legality -- if not morality -- but he invoked the principle of "what is not forbidden is allowed."

From the standpoint of science, the practices of these health clinics and beauty salons are highly dangerous. Stem cells -- sometimes labeled as fetal but sometimes from animals such as pigs and sheep -- are being injected under clients' skin, into their stomachs, at the base of their spines, etc. Vladimir Smirnov, director of the Institute of Experimental Cardiology, told the British medical journal "The Lancet," No. 9466, that clients can feel a positive effect for a month or six weeks after the injection because introducing foreign material into the body causes "immuno-stimulation." But this foreign material being injected can grow into tumors and/or cause infections.

The Russian tabloid "Moskovskii komsomolets" documented in an article in March the nightmarish side effects experienced by some clients of rejuvenation treatments, which can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $22,000. The newspaper quoted an anonymous professor who claimed that pharmaceutical billionaire Vladimir Bryntsalov underwent an expensive treatment at a "respectable salon" and woke up the next morning looking like Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko did after his encounter with the poison dioxin. In another example, a woman identified as Irina D., 38, received a series of "youth injections" for $560. Within several days she experienced a wild surge of energy, started to sleep only three to four hours a night, and lost three kilos. Later, scars appeared on her legs and she began experiencing horrible back pain. She went back to the salon to complain and they offered her 10 more injections. She only began recovering after consulting with an endocrinologist, a cardiologist, and a dermatologist.

The proliferation of new scientific and medical techniques can prove bewildering not just to consumers but to practitioners. In 1995, the Society of Russian Orthodox Doctors (OPV) was formed in Moscow and a variety of other large cities to discuss increasingly complex moral questions connected with scientific developments, such as stem-cell technology and gene therapy, according to "Meditsinskii vestnik," No. 16, 2005. Ten years later, at a conference this June in St. Petersburg on "Medicine and the Church," organized by the St. Petersburg branch of OPV, the level of discussion was quite sophisticated as participants discussed whether or not canon law allowed for the baptizing of infants that were conceived in test tubes, portal-credo.ru reported on 16 June.

Acting together, scientists have managed to have some impact on efforts to curb the abuses of stem-cell therapy. At the end of March, a group of 13 scientists appealed to the State Duma to introduce a law prohibiting the clinical use of stem cells from embryos and aborted fetuses. While legislation has not yet appeared, in April the Federal Service for the Monitoring of Health Care and Social Development announced a crackdown against private medical clinics offering stem-cell therapy, usually in conjunction with an antiaging program. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 1 April, the service investigated 42 clinics -- 37 of which had their medical licenses suspended. But by June, a reporter for London's "Daily Mail" found several clinics in Moscow alone still operating and offering a menu of stem-cell services not only to locals but to wealthy British, American, and Swedish clients.

Non-Christians often challenge religious objections to the use of fetal stem cells by noting that the aborted fetuses would otherwise be thrown out. But evidence suggests that the fetal stem cells being used by clinics and salons are not "recycled" waste, since not just any fetal cells are suitable. Fetuses that are further developed are more desirable to those clinics. Smirnov, director of the Institute of Experimental Cardiology, believes there is a criminal trade in fetuses that are obtained from poor women in Russia and Ukraine who are persuaded to have late abortions. "The women are paid about $200 to have a cesarean at about 15 weeks and the fetus is then passed on to a clinic," he told "The Lancet." According to "Moskovskii komsomlets," ads seeking fetal stem cells have appeared on Russian websites.

Scientific progress, which so often can be at odds with theologians, may be coming to their aid. Stem cells exist in different forms. Totipotent stem cells are the ones extracted from frozen embryos. The Russian Orthodox Church does not oppose the use of "adult" stem cells, or pluripotent stem cells, which can be found in people's blood or in their bone marrow. A Harvard Research team announced recently that they have figured out how to turn ordinary skin cells into embryonic -- or totipotent -- stem cells. This process is likely to be expensive at least initially, but with experience the cost of the process should eventually go down. At the same time, this technique may do nothing to smooth wrinkles or turn back the ravages of time. For that, Father Antonii may suggest, living a worthy, Christian life is the only truly effective tonic.

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