Catholic Clergy Attack French Telethon Over Stem Cell Aid

Paris, France - For the secular French state, the attack by the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy comes close to a declaration of war.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, praised President Jacques Chirac's promotion of the muscular dystrophy telethon, but opposed financing stem cell research.

For two decades, the country’s Muscular Dystrophy Association has run a wildly popular annual telethon to raise money for medical research.

Indeed, the 34-hour fund-raiser, which begins Friday night at the Trocadéro esplanade in Paris and will be shown on national television, is expected to surpass last year’s record of more than $138 million in donations.

But this year, the Roman Catholic Church here has sullied the reputation of the telethon, with some church officials calling its financing of research on embryonic stem cells immoral.

“For us, these embryos are not things, but human beings,” Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, told journalists on Tuesday. “And from the depths of our faith, we cannot accept that they are selected, destroyed, the objects of experiments.”

The cardinal, one of France’s most senior Roman Catholic clerics, praised the telethon as a worthy project over all, but other church figures have suggested that it be boycotted.

Pierre-Olivier Arduin, a member of the commission for bioethics and human life for the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, set off the dispute in October when he posted a statement on the diocese Web site. “It is no longer possible to participate in the telethon,” his statement said, adding, “Christians cannot cooperate with evil.” The statement has been removed.

Then Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Paris said that just because the telethon provided money for worthwhile projects to fight muscular dystrophy, it should not be given “a blank check.”

Bishop Dominique Rey of Fréjus-Toulon then said in a statement on the diocese Web site, “We can promote donations to campaigns only if they offer all necessary ethical guarantees on the experiment that they support.”

France, like some other European Union countries, allows limited research using embryonic stem cells. Britain and Belgium are more permissive; Germany and Italy have stricter regulations.

But the separation of church and state is an unshakable pillar of the French Republic, and these attacks have been met with sharp resistance.

Government officials and the leaders of the French medical establishment have made clear that the church has no business interfering in matters of state, especially when they involve a practice that is legal.

“It’s not up to the church to put any pressure on families who have recourse to genetic diagnoses, and even less to make the totality of donors feel guilty,” said Manuel Valls, a member of Parliament and mayor of Évry, the suburb of Paris where the Muscular Dystrophy Association is based.

Didier Sicard, president of France’s National Consultative Bioethics Committee, said the church’s campaign was “misconstrued and extraordinarily disruptive.”

Bernard Barataud, the president of the Généthon laboratory, which does stem cell research and receives money from the telethon, even accused the Catholic Church of “having mobilized its extreme troops to kindle the controversy and do the dirty work.”

Even President Jacques Chirac entered the fray, staunchly defending the telethon and upholding a 2004 bioethics law that permits stem cell research, with prior parental approval, on embryos that would have been destroyed.

Welcoming 100 telethon leaders to Élysée Palace on Monday, Mr. Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, praised them for giving “honor to morality and to the nation.”

“It is within the strict application of this law, I repeat, strict application of this law, that the telethon, with good reason, is acting,” he said. “I wanted to stress this point this so that there will be no ambiguity.” He added that it was important for all sides to consult through dialogue. The Protestants also have thrown their support behind Mr. Chirac.

“Without any intent of parenthood, we don’t consider an embryo a full-fledged human being,” Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of France’s Protestant Federation, said Wednesday.

The Catholic Church has consistently opposed research on embryonic stem cells, but the current verbal assault by church leaders is exceptional in republican France.

An analysis on Thursday in Le Monde called it “a polemic without precedent.”

Telethon supporters note that the embryonic stem cell research program is only one of 400 projects the Muscular Dystrophy Association supports and that last year it received only $2 million, or about 1.4 percent of what the telethon raised.

The association has rejected suggestions that it allow donors to earmark their contributions for certain projects, saying in a statement that it does not want its projects to be determined by outside factors like regional interests or specific diseases and treatments.

In recent days, some clerics have tried to calm the waters, saying that the telethon is a worthy project that merits support.

On Thursday, the Conference of French Bishops made clear that it was not calling for a boycott.

“French bishops who have spoken about the telethon have all praised this work of generosity and solidarity,” the conference said in a statement. “None of them has called for a boycott of the telethon. Quite the contrary.”

Cardinal Barbarin also made that point, telling journalists on Tuesday, “Kids must continue to break their piggy banks for the disabled.”