The embryonic stem cell research debate is steeped with religious arguments, with some faith traditions convinced the research amounts to killing innocent life, others citing the moral imperative to alleviate suffering, and plenty of religious believers caught somewhere in between.
President Barack Obama’s order Monday opening the door for federal taxpayer dollars to fund expanded embryonic stem cell research again brings those often colliding interests to the fore.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called Obama’s move “a sad victory of politics over science and ethics.”
On the other side is the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a United Church of Christ minister and a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.
“There is an ethical imperative to relieve suffering and promote healing,” she said.
Some religious traditions teach that because life begins at conception, any research that destroys a human embryo, as this research does, is tantamount to murder and is never justified. The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are among those that oppose the research.
Other more liberal traditions, including mainline Protestant and Jewish institutions, believe the promise to relieve suffering is paramount. In 2004, the governing body of the Episcopal Church said it would favor the research as long as it used embryos that otherwise would have been destroyed, that embryos were not created for research purposes, or were not bought and sold.
Under Jewish law, an embryo is genetic material that does not have the status of a person. According to the Talmud, the embryo is “simply water” in the first 40 days of gestation. Healing and preserving human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism.
A primer on stem cells
What are embryonic stem cells?
Cells are the basic biological building blocks of all life. Embryonic stem cells are a type of cell that have the potential to become any of the body’s specialized cells and tissues. Embryonic stem cells can be grown into specialized cells needed for research into conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and diabetes and may ultimately be used in the treatment of spinal cord injuries, Type 1 diabetes and other maladies.
Are there adult stem cells?
Yes. Stem cells harvested from adults, children and even babies are called adult stem cells and are part of the body’s repair mechanism. These types of stem cells are useful for some kinds of therapies, but they are not as versatile as embryonic stem cells. Research continues on both kinds.
Where do embryonic stem cells come from?
They are harvested from days-old embryos in a process that destroys the embryo itself. The embryos used by scientists are typically donated by couples who no longer need them for fertility treatments.
Why is this so political?
Since the stem cells come from embryos, some people who believe life begins at conception view the research as tantamount to murder. Those favoring such research argue that embryos are not babies, and that since the unused embryos would otherwise be discarded, it is imperative to use them to understand and potentially cure diseases.
Is embryonic stem cell research legal?
In most states, yes. A few states don’t permit scientists to work with the cells. But there have never been any federal laws against the research. The only limitations were about federal funding.