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.
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.
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.
Hassan Hathout, an Islamic medical expert in Los Angeles, said most Muslims have discarded those early rulings as advances in medical technology have opened a window on the complexity of early embryonic life. Still, he endorsed the use of unwanted frozen embryos for research, saying they would otherwise be headed for the trash bin since Islam prohibits surrogate parenting on the grounds that procreation must take place only within marriage.
"Instead of going to waste, you can use them to solve human problems," said Hathout, a trustee with the Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences based in Kuwait.
Other scholars, notably in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have ruled that abortion and the use of a Muslim body for medical research are absolutely prohibited, according to UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl. He said the taboo against using the body for research is so strong, even among American Muslims, that he was widely denounced in Ohio last year for suggesting in a lecture that once a person dies, the soul is with God and the body can be used to benefit other humans, so long as it is properly disposed of.
"There is suspicion of objectifying the human body for purposes of medical research and turning embryos into commodities," Abou El Fadl said.
Hinduism Contains Sacrificial Tradition
Buddhism and Hinduism, Eastern religions that believe in reincarnation, present still other complexities. Both view human incarnation as a rare and precious opportunity to seek enlightenment. In the Hindu view, life begins before conception; India's ancient philosophical text known as the Upanishads describes the soul present even in the sperm.
"I can see human beings becoming like laboratory samples, and that concerns me," said a nun named Saradeshaprana with the Vedanta Society in Los Angeles. "A human life, whether in a petri dish or mother's uterus, is still to me a human life that should be regarded with great awe and reverence."
But Hinduism also contains a broad sacrificial tradition that condones taking life for a higher cause, according to Christopher Chapple, a theology professor and director of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The Mahabharata, the 2,700-year-old great epic text of India, affirms the acceptability of sacrificing a son for the family and the family for the village. Stem cell research might be condoned under this tradition, he said.
Many Buddhists believe that the soul has some say in where to reincarnate and might not choose to enter a surplus embryo in a petri dish with no chance of developing full term, experts say.
"A soul with any taste won't head for a petri dish,"' said Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. "Who wants to hang out there?"
Beyond dogma, Thurman said he is troubled that stem cell research seems to "focus on saving some middle-class lives of people who have good insurance policies and pay money to high-tech hospitals to perform this kind of thing . . . ignoring people who are poor, don't have a decent life or regular health care."
Among Christians, the issue has provoked a flurry of dueling opinions. One ABC News/Beliefnet poll conducted in June reported that 58% of Americans polled supported stem cell research, including a majority of Catholics, evangelical Christians and nonevangelical Protestants.
But a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said his organization believed the results were skewed by the poll's failure to explicitly state that embryos had to be destroyed to harvest the stem cells. In the bishops' commissioned survey in June, which stated that "live embryos would be destroyed in their first week of development to obtain these cells," 69.9% of respondents said they opposed using federal tax dollars for the research.
Many Catholics and other Christians say they are not opposed to using adult stem cells for research. But researchers say those cells lack the broad potential of embryonic stem cells.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, made the stem cell issue a top priority during the presidential campaign and still meets regularly with Bush administration officials about it and other anti-abortion concerns, according to Richard Land, president of the convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Land said the convention is adamantly opposed to research using stem cells from aborted fetuses or frozen embryos, calling it "nothing more than biotech cannibalism, in which we eat our young in order to better our own medical condition."
But he said members could probably accept a compromise currently being floated allowing federal funding for research using embryonic stem cells already harvested.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution in June supporting federal funding of the research. And the United Church of Christ has expressed openness to it as long as a "clear and attainable benefit" for science and medicine is indicated in advance, said Ronald Cole-Turner, a UCC minister and professor of theology and ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Ultimately, however, religious attitudes may not play the largest role in shaping most Americans' opinions on the issue.
According to the ABC News/Beliefnet poll, religion was the biggest influence for evangelical Christians but not for Catholics or nonevangelical Protestants. Those two groups cited education and news reports as their top influences instead.