Faith Is a Force On Both Sides of Stem Cell Debate
August 4, 2001
Religious Communities Split Sharply On Permitting Embryonic Research
A week before his visit to Pope John Paul II, where he got an unexpected sermon on the evils of embryonic stem cell research, President Bush received a forceful letter from an official in his own denomination urging an extended ban on stem cell experimentation.
"You have promised to make a decision regarding the use of federal tax dollars to support embryonic stem cell research," Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church's General Board for Church and Society, wrote July 17. That decision "can maintain the current prohibition on such funding or take us further down a path to the ultimate commodification of human life," he said.
Bush, who for weeks has been deliberating the issue of federally funded stem cell research, has sought the opinions of some ethicists and religious leaders and gotten unsolicited advice from many more. But there has been no theological consensus, even within denominations.
Last week, 43 members of Bethesda United Methodist Church wrote a letter to local church officials and the denomination's public policy board calling Winkler's interpretation of a United Methodist resolution on embryonic research "morally wrong."
"We pray that Mr. Winkler will reconsider the position he has taken on behalf of the church, publicly retract his letter to President Bush and instead extend his support for embryonic cell research within the carefully considered boundaries established in the previous administration," the authors wrote.
Winkler was out of the country this week and unavailable for comment.
J.D. Hanson, the board's assistant general secretary, said its Washington office has received several e-mails for and against Winkler's letter but only the one letter demanding a retraction.
Whether to fund -- or even allow -- embryonic stem cell research is a decision "religious communities have to be involved in," said the Rev. Archie LeMone, an assistant pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington and board member of a minority transplant education program at Howard University Hospital.
Yet it's difficult to advise public officials when there is no agreement among religious groups, he said.
Some predominantly black denominations, such as the Progressive National Baptist Convention to which LeMone belongs, have not taken a position on stem cell research. They believe they need to be better informed about the topic "because human life is at stake," he said.
"We don't want stem cell research to go awry for profit," LeMone said, echoing concerns by religious leaders on both sides that embryos and procedures might be patented. And African Americans, whose ancestors came to this country as slaves, "the first form of human commodity," want to ensure that the buying and selling of humans will not be allowed again, he said.
Other opinions vary widely, and the position of religious leaders does not always mirror that of the rank and file.
Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, said that his organization has issued no statement but that he advised Bush, through the White House office of public liaison, to "step back from the moral abyss" by rejecting all forms of stem cell research.
Cizik believes that most evangelicals the association represents -- more than 125,000 in 51 denominations -- are "deeply troubled by our government actually funding stem cell research that results in the destruction of human embryos." But a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows evangelical Protestants split on the issue.
The Rabbinical Council of America, representing the country's largest organization of Orthodox Jews, last week wrote Bush expressing support for funding stem cell research on embryos that otherwise would be discarded. "Our rabbinic authorities inform us that an isolated fertilized egg does not enjoy the full status of person-hood and its attendant protections," the letter said.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism took a similar position in a July 16 letter to the president.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has not taken an official stance but generally believes "it is not evil to do this research," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, vice chairman of the denomination's committee on Jewish law and standards. According to his reading of Jewish law, "an embryo outside the womb is not a human being," he said.
Here are some other positions:
• The United Church of Christ, at its general assembly in Kansas City, Mo., last month, passed a resolution calling on Bush to release funds for embryonic stem cell research. Research should follow guidelines established by the National Institutes of Health, requiring that research be restricted to excess embryos created for fertility treatments, the resolution said.
• The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has taken no position and has no plans to address stem cell research at its national convention in Indianapolis next week. But a resolution could be introduced from the floor, a spokesman said.
• The Presbyterian Church (USA), at its general assembly in Louisville in June, passed a resolution supporting "the use of fetal tissue and embryonic tissue for vital research" that could result in the healing of illness. The resolution, introduced by the Presbytery of Baltimore, endorses the use of fetal tissue from abortions and from embryos discarded after fertilization treatments.
• At its general assembly last year, the Episcopal Church considered a resolution calling for a moratorium on stem cell research but referred it to a standing committee for further consideration. The committee will give its report at the next general assembly, in 2003.
• Islamic officials have not issued a statement or advisory. But Muslims support the use of "early embryo leftovers" in fertility clinics in research aimed at curbing and eliminating disease, said Hassan Hathout, trustee for the Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences in Kuwait. Islam opposes creating embryos with the intention of using them for research, he said.
• The 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, at its 1999 annual meeting passed a resolution reaffirming its "vigorous opposition to the destruction of innocent human life, including the destruction of human embryos." The resolution said the use of embryos in research "would likely lead to an increase in the number of abortions and create a market for aborted embryos and other fetal tissues."
• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unlikely to announce a position until scientists further clarify the necessity of embryonic stem cell research, said Courtney S. Campbell, an associate professor of ethics at Oregon State University and a Mormon. Generally, Mormons believe life does not begin until after 14 days, a critical time for neuronal and cellular development, so research before two weeks probably would be acceptable, he said.
Disagreement over the ethics of stem cell research is evident in Congress, and religious affiliation in some cases seems to be playing a role.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), an evangelical Christian, has declared his opposition to stem cell research. But Republican senators Bill Frist (Tenn.), a Presbyterian, and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), a Mormon, have written Bush urging him to support embryonic stem cell research.
It was shortly after taking office in January that Bush decided to reconsider President Bill Clinton's decision to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Stem cells have the potential of developing into virtually any cell or tissue in the body, and scientists hope to use them to repair organs and counteract such conditions as Parkinson's, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.
Those funds would come from money Congress votes on each year for research at the National Institutes of Health, and the funding is restricted by law to research that does not involve the destruction of embryos. Technically, Clinton and his legal advisers reasoned, the funds could be used for research on embryonic stem cells because federally funded scientists would work only with cells harvested by private labs.
Winkler, as head of the Methodist church's Washington-based public policy office, speaks with the authority of the 8.3 million-member denomination's general conference -- a national gathering of clergy and lay people that meets every four years to pass laws and resolutions. Last year's general conference approved a resolution calling for a ban on all forms of human cloning and on "therapeutic, medical, research and commercial procedures which generate waste embryos."
The prohibition would include all forms of embryonic stem cell research and is based on a Methodist task force's belief that scientists have not proved that other sources of stem cells -- including stem cells from umbilical cords and adult stem cells from bone marrow -- cannot be as effective in combating disease, Hanson said.
"As the United Methodist Church and as a society, we need to stop and think about what we're doing," Hanson said. "We need to let the technical questions catch up with the scientific possibilities [for alternative sources] before we take the next step."
Hanson said he assumes the president "knows what his denomination is thinking" about stem cell research but that he has received no response from the White House beyond acknowledgment that the letter arrived.
"We've tried to offer him our advice," he said.
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