This book, edited by Brent Waters and Robert Cole-Turner, grew out two public gatherings. The first was an October 2001 research colloquy on the "Ethics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research," held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and which was co- sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Values and Science and Spirit magazine. The second was a panel discussion on "The Moral Status of the Embryo" held at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in February 2002 and sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The book is divided into three parts and contains an appendix which includes a cross-section of various official religious statements regarding stem cell research as well as the statement on human cloning by the President's Council on Bioethics. Part One deals with frameworks for the debate, Part Two turns to the moral status of embryos, and Part Three considers some of the ethical issues connected with research.
The book is well done from the perspective of a good range of deliberative positions, including at least a few voices (e.g., Waters) who will admit to a certain amount of moral ambivalence concerning the prospects of stem cell research. In fact this ambivalence is probably the starting point for most of the essays and therefore the book helps us both to reflect upon and sharpen our moral reasoning on what is going on in this hotly debated ethical issue. Since all of the authors are addressing the same relatively narrow issue there is a certain amount of repetition (such as the biological facts of the process from fertilization to implantation) that does become a bit distracting as the reader moves through the collection. Not all of the essays are of equal length or depth, but virtually all of them offer at least an original worthwhile insight or two. A welcome aspect found in most of the authors' approach is a willingness to allow that there is a certain provisional nature to their individual assessments. They seem to be saying that "I might be wrong, but this is my best thoughts on this complex issue at this point in time." Also quite helpful is a realistic assessment of the policy ramifications for the decisions regarding stem cell research on both the national and global levels.
In this reader's opinion the best essay is Sondra Wheeler's concluding reflection given from an explicit faith position, "Talking Like Believers: Christians and Jews in the Embryonic Stem Cell Debate." Wheeler calmly critiques a tendency to rush to judgment which is further exacerbated by an unwillingness to question our assumptions regarding everything that might be involved in the stem cell project. She cautions that before "we are swayed by those who wax rhapsodic about the unlimited potential for curing Parkinson's or repairing devastating spinal cord injuries, we do well to remember the role of marketability in determining what products do and do not get made by pharmaceutical companies that are and remain profit-making enterprises. We need to pay attention to who does and who does not receive the cutting-edge drugs and therapies presently available. In view of the fact that all Americans do not yet have access to even basic preventive medicine or the first-line treatments of primary care, it is disingenuous to weigh the potential benefits of ESCR [Embryonic Stem Cell Research] as if the barriers to access to advanced therapies are about to dissolve" (p. 157).
No book is perfect and this one could have been improved by a more aggressive editing to remove some of the dulling repetition of the same biological facts restated in virtually every essay. The book's subtitle speaks of religious voices in the debate, and inclusion of a few more of these would have expanded the polyphony, even if it might have challenged the harmony. For example, someone well-versed in the Catholic moral theological tradition of bioethics and proportionalism would have complemented the majority of Protestant ethicians, and it certainly would have been interesting to include someone Leon Kass, who would represent the views of those who are rather more strongly cautious about stem cell research than most of the authors in this collection. Nevertheless, the book is quite readable and brings an important breadth and depth to this emerging moral debate.