But Dr. Serour argues that excess early embryos (less than 14 days old) are not yet human beings. "Instead of leaving them to perish, why not use them for research for the benefit of human beings?" he says during an interview at the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research in Cairo, which he directs.
Some Islamic scholars hold favorable views toward embryonic stem-cell research from the perspective of sharia (Islamic law). Most of these scholars believe ensoulment of the embryo occurs on the 120th day of the pregnancy, Mr. Eich says, and that is the point when it gains its moral status or rights as a legal person. Other Islamic scholars, however, say ensoulment occurs on the 40th day.
According to another view of sharia, there is a distinction between potential life and actual life, says Muzammil Siddiqi, chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America in Orange County, Calif. Although life begins at conception in the womb, he says, an embryo formed by artificial fertilization "is not in its natural environment.... If it is not placed in the womb it will not survive and it will not become a human being."
"It is obligatory to pursue this research, [which] has great potential to relieve human disease and suffering," Dr. Siddiqi continues, but he believes stem cells should be derived only from therapeutic cloning or from excess frozen embryos that were created for in vitro fertilization.
Egypt will not be the first predominantly Muslim country to conduct stem-cell research. Iranian scientists developed human embryonic stem-cell lines in 2003 with the approval of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, says LeRoy Walters, a professor at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington. Singapore, where Muslims have a slight majority, has also produced embryonic stem-cell lines. And nonembryonic stem-cell research is conducted in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia, says Una Chen, who is based in Giessen, Germany, as chairwoman of the International Committee for the International Society for Stem Cell Research.