Stem Cell Dilemmas

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KIM LAWTON, guest anchor: New religious and ethical debates this week after President Barack Obama cleared the way for federal tax dollars to fund expanded embryonic stem cell research. Obama said funding such research is morally necessary because of the potential to find medical cures.

Kim Lawton and David Masci

President BARACK OBAMA:  As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each and work to ease human suffering.  I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly.

LAWTON: The Catholic Church and several other religious groups oppose that research because it destroys the embryo, which they consider tantamount to killing an innocent human life.

Joining me with more is David Masci, senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.  David, how controversial is this within the religious community?

DAVID MASCI (Senior Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life): Well, there are a range of different opinions in the American religious community. Jewish denominations and mainline Protestant churches, particularly more liberal mainline Protestant churches, support embryonic stem cell research. They say that embryos have intrinsic value and worth, but the incredible possibilities that stem cell research offer — cures for cancer and things like that —outweigh those concerns and considerations. On the other side, you have the Roman Catholic Church and you have more evangelical Protestant churches like the Southern Baptist Convention or the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. These churches oppose embryonic stem cell research. They say an embryo was a person and a person has the right to life and you can’t take that life away, even for the best of reasons.

LAWTON: What about the people in the pews? Do they agree with the leadership of these institutions?

Mr. MASCI: White evangelical Protestants tend to support their churches’ positions on this, only 31 percent of evangelicals support embryonic stem cell research, so a substantial majority say no, we don’t want embryonic stem cell research. With Catholics it’s the other way around. Fifty-nine percent of American Catholics support embryonic stem cell research, which of course goes exactly against what the Church’s leadership is saying. Now when you ask Catholics who attend Mass regularly, weekly, whether they support embryonic stem cell research, that number drops to 46 percent. So people actually in the pews, people who are attending Roman Catholic services, they do — they are more likely to support their leadership’s views on this than Catholics as a whole.

LAWTON: What about the issue of adult stem cells? There are some opponents of embryonic stem cell research that say this is a way of getting the stems cells without destroying the embryo, and therefore it might be an ethical alternative. Is that indeed a viable alternative?

Mr. MASCI: It might be. I think that’s the right way to put it. Scientists tell us that they’ve made an enormous number of strides especially recently in this area. They’ve been able to reprogram skin cells, for example, to act like embryonic stem cells so that they can be used in all different kinds of ways. But scientists also say that these cells and embryonic stem cells, in both cases they’re not really ready for medical therapy yet. They haven’t reached the point where they feel confident that they can do all the things that they hope they can do. So their position—scientists are saying, you know, what we need to do is work in both areas, with adult stem cells and with embryonic stem cells. On the other hand, you have some opponents of embryonic stem cell research saying adult stem cells are clearly the way to go. They eliminate the ethical considerations, and given the advances that have been made recently it’s clear that that’s where we’re headed in terms of this therapy.

LAWTON: All right. David Masci, thank you very much.

Mr. MASCI: Thank you, Kim.

  • Ruth Elsbernd

    Very well and completely reported. I’m disappointed personally that an incipient human life would be destroyed. The end does not justify the means ethically.

  • David Gunn

    If we can just imagine the possibility that Stem Cell research could help so many.But we can find that history has shown that religion has,to this very day,tried to halt the advancement of medicine and science because of some ancient mythical beliefs.It would be a sad day if we left our health and welfare to prayer

  • Mike Moffitt

    Mr. Gunn: Did you read or watch this story? A remarkable percentage of practicing religious people support stem cell research. Are you so blind and fearful of viewpoints other than your own that you ignore the facts of the story about which you are making a comment? Why are you even watching/reading stories like these if you are so starkly offended by the idea of religion? A reminder — the series is called “RELIGION and Ethics Newsweekly.” Did the ambiguity of the title confuse you? Please stop wasting the time of thoughtful people by engaging material like this story with the sole purpose of antagonizing others and giving voice to your anger about religion. It was not the purpose of the article, of this website, or of this comment forum. If the reality of the world around you is so offensive and distasteful, perhaps you would like to have been one of the embryos destroyed for the sake of the research.

  • Adam Thompson

    Mr. Moffitt, it does appear that you have contradicted yourself, talking about antagonizing people even though the very premise of you statement was to antagonize Mr.Gunn, please think before you speak. It appears that you are the one that is freaked out by this prospect of an alternative point of view due to your aggressive nature. I would just like to point out your hypocrisy.

  • Mary Hudson

    It is a red herring as it is adult stem cells that are healing people not embryonic. The source of the cells is the patients own fat or bone marrow or cord blood extracted from the umbilical cord after a baby is born. There are no ethical issues for any of these.

  • umbilical cord blood stem cells

    intersting read thanks

  • hanna radzevich

    The question of a stem cell debate is a question of ethics
    and morality. It is a question of right and wrong. But who is the judge? Who
    has the right to tell what is truth and what is false. In our world religion
    took that job of a judge. Nowadays religion interprets the law of morality in
    terms of its needs. Not all the religions are against stem cell research. For
    example, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Conservative Protestants
    consider the life of the embryo as a human’s life from the very beginning. Judaism,
    for example, supports stem cell research as it supports live of humanity (a
    human fetus before its forty days old doesn’t have a human status). In Buddhism
    and Hinduism the intention is important when it suppose to help humanity. In Islam an embryo has a right to be called a
    human only after it has lived for forty days (Hug). I think that science should
    not depend on religion, and it is not Middle Ages, when religion was in control
    of every aspects of human’s life. Through ages people have started to explain
    their actions, thoughts, and their feelings. Church should not dictate what is
    moral and what is not, especially when the Church itself depends on the country
    and culture.

    Hug, K. Human Embryonic stem cell research and ethics.
    4 March 2011. 30 April 2014.