We have another Vatican stem cell meeting coming up this spring.

This meeting raises some extremely important questions and complex issues at the interface of science, religion, philosophy and ethics.

From the perspective of scientists, an important issue is whether (assuming one is invited) to attend such a meeting and if one does attend, is that action alone making a statement?

If big-name scientists attend this meeting are they tacitly giving approval to the Vatican’s extreme stance on stem cells by attending?

Or is this rather an opportunity to engage people with a diversity of perspectives in a constructive dialogue?

As we ponder such questions, here is some brief background.

If you recall, last year the Vatican had a stem cell meeting that drew a lot of media attention. The meeting was restricted for “ethical” researchers and “thinkers” only such as folks from the propagandist Family Research Council. Some scientists attended including a few very good ones.

As best as I can tell, I was almost the only one in the scientific community who was willing to publicly provide some perspectives and thoughts on the meeting. My post on that meeting can be read here. Bioethicist Art Caplan, who attended the meeting, published a very critical commentary of that meeting.

The Vatican 2012 stem cell meeting, which will be held starting in late April, seems to have a wider diversity of scientists attending, which is a positive sign. You can see here who is on “faculty” list. Some of the big-name scientists reportedly attending, including some folks who do work with ES cells, are George Daley, Doug Melton, and Alan Trounson, President of CIRM amongst others.

By attending this meeting, which prohibits discussion of embryonic stem cell research, are these scientists lending credibility to a meeting that is ideologically restrictive?

I think the answer is certainly “yes”, but of course it is not that simple and I also believe that by attending this meeting these scientists can also have positive impacts that at least in theory may very well outweigh the negatives of their implicitly lending credibility to a ideologically closed meeting.

Still I personally am very uncomfortable with a scientific meeting run by a church, including the Catholic Church, and one at which only certain types of science and scientists are allowed to attend.

I also wonder how much the meeting’s structure and rules will really allow for an open dialogue. Unfortunately, I suspect very little truly open discourse will occur.

Also I can’t help but wonder, what would be the reaction if someone like Daley spent a few minutes of his talk discussing his ES cell research in a very non-confrontational way?

Would he be tasered or drop through some trap door straight to Hell….. do not pass Go do not collect $200?

Do speakers have to sign an agreement that they won’t do this or are the organizers counting on no rebel doing something like that given the venue and the intimidation factor?

Do speakers have to get their powerpoint presentations vetted in advance?

The bottom line is that I remain very skeptical that this kind of meeting can advance science or help patients in the long run.

As I’ve been learning more about the Vatican while pondering all these issues, I stumbled upon an image of a sculpture at the Vatican by the artist Pomodoro (see picture at right) called “Sphere within a sphere”. It is reportedly supposed to represent the Earth (inner sphere) surrounded by Christianity (outer sphere).

Interestingly, to me where I first saw this sculpture my first impression was to find the sculpture extremely powerful, but in a negative way. Not negative artistically (Pomodoro is clearly very talented), but rather negative in terms of the emotion it evokes.

To me it looks like a sickly stem cell that is falling apart with its fragmenting nucleus coming out. Of course with art, it can be interpreted differently by each viewer and my interpretation is surely influenced strongly by my being a stem cell scientist and my own view of the universe.

The Vatican’s involvement with stem cells resonates in a major way here in the U.S. with the current presidential election and the focus of the Republican leadership on stigmatizing anything related to embryonic stem cell research including contraception and, at least in their minds, abortion.

You should have no doubt that this Vatican meeting and the Vatican more generally strongly influence American politics in ways that have profound consequences for science and medicine. Further, the way this political discourse is evolving in the U.S. there could very well be some shockingly extreme outcomes that would seem harken back more to the Dark Ages and in some ways the Crusades. We may find that “bad” scientists who work on “bad” stem cell science that either religiously or ideologically motivated politicians do not approve of may be arrested and placed in a prison cell.

Are such scientists going to hell too?

The stakes are very high in a society when talk of scientists going to jail for “moral” reasons for doing what most consider mainstream science becomes less hyperbole and more reality.

That Pomodoro sculpture above could just as easily symbolize science itself being smothered and killed by ideology.

A final point is that I believe that people can believe in God and also be embryonic stem cell research supporters. I believe that embryonic stem cell research is ethical. I understand not everyone is going to agree with me on that, but my point would be do not let other people make you feel somehow “bad” for supporting this potentially life saving and life changing research

You can follow this discussion further on twitter at pknoepfler.