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Religions Divided on Stem Cell Issue

Ethics: Vatican rejects such research; Judaism supports it. When life begins is key to position.


As the White House struggles to reach a decision on whether to allow public funding for embryonic stem cell research, it may seem that the religious community is uniformly opposed to it.

It isn't.

While opposition to the funding from Catholics and evangelical Christians has been highly publicized, ethical thinkers from other major world religions, including Judaism and Islam, affirm the moral acceptability of the practice.

Among Protestants, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutherans' Missouri Synod oppose the research, but the United Church of Christ and Presbyterian Church USA support it.

And even within the Roman Catholic Church, there are diverse opinions.

Representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have consistently spoken out against the research, which entails destroying a days-old embryo or using aborted fetal matter to harvest the stem cells.

Los Angeles Times Thursday August 2, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 3 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
Stem cell research--A July 21 story on religious views of stem cell research gave the erroneous impression that members of the Southern Baptist Convention would accept a compromise to use federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells already harvested. In fact, the convention has taken no formal stand on any such compromise. Some individual members have said that even though they would personally oppose it, a compromise would not 'fatally flaw" President Bush's standing with abortion opponents if he were to embrace it, according to Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

But some Catholic moral theologians, such as Margaret A. Farley of Yale Divinity School, support the research, arguing that a human embryo in its most primitive stage--the first 14 days before it begins developing a rudimentary spine--does not bear the same moral status as an "individualized human entity."

In short, the religious world is as divided as the general public on the ultimate questions of when life begins and when the moral claims of that life become paramount.

"It is a fairly common misperception that religion speaks with one voice on this. It doesn't," said Philip Boyle, chief operating officer of the Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith and Ethics in Chicago. "With any advance in medical technology or biotechnology, people have the impression that the religious position is 'just say no,' but there is a wide diversity of views."

Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to become nearly every kind of cell or tissue type, raising the hope that they can be fashioned into replacement parts for failing organs. But their source is a matter of fierce moral debate, because they are taken from human life that has been deliberately destroyed--usually through abortions or in laboratories that extract the cells from embryos produced at fertility clinics and donated by parents who no longer want them.

Jewish Tradition Allows Use of Surplus Embryos

The research raises a host of moral and ethical questions: Does a fertilized egg in a petri dish have the same right to life as a born person? Is it morally permissible to sacrifice an embryonic life for the promise of greater community good? Are those who use aborted fetal tissue in stem cell research participating in the destruction of that human life?

Among the world religions, Judaism offers the clearest vote of support for embryonic stem cell research. Jewish law gives no legal status to a fertilized ovum outside the mother's womb, which has no potential to become a person on its own, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a bioethics expert and philosophy professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

As a result, Jewish tradition not only permits the use of surplus embryos for research, it would encourage couples to donate them in keeping with Talmudic exhortations to be "God's partners and agents" in the act of medical care and the obligation to help save lives, said Dorff, a Conservative rabbi. The tradition would probably even permit the farming of embryos for stem cells, he added.

Even embryos inside the uterus still have lesser status than a person, a view rooted in such sources as Exodus 21, Dorff said. In that biblical passage, a man who pushes a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage is obligated to pay a fine to her husband, rather than a "life for life" compensation required if the woman were killed. (Some Christians interpret that same incident as a premature birth, not a death, justifying the lesser penalty.) In the Mishna, the first collection of the oral Torah edited in AD 200, a fetus is ordered destroyed to save the mother's life and is given equal status only when its head emerges.

Jewish law would also allow the use of aborted fetal matter for stem cell research, although this is "less clean morally" than frozen embryos, since it would be unknown if the abortions were performed for permissible reasons, Dorff said.

The Islamic tradition includes views that both affirm and prohibit such research. Some early Islamic jurists based rulings on indemnity for homicide on the fetus' first palpable movements inside the mother's womb, about the fourth month of pregnancy. Such rulings suggest that Muslim jurists would not grant an early embryo full moral status and therefore would allow stem cell research with potential therapeutic value, according to Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia in testimony to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in 1999.

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