Mormons may be key in stem-cell debate

WASHINGTON - Catholics and Mormons may have vast theological differences, but the two denominations have been close on issues of morality such as pornography and abortion -- until the current debate over embryonic stem-cell research.

George W. Bush, the U.S. President, has said he is struggling over whether to allow federal funding for the research, which many scientists claim is the key to curing a host of ills from Parkinson's disease to spinal cord injuries.

The Catholic Church has steadfastly condemned embryonic stem-cell research because embryos have to be destroyed to harvest cells. The Church teaches life begins at conception, disallowing the destruction even of embryos created in fertility clinics that will never be implanted in a woman.

When Mr. Bush visited Pope John Paul II last month, the pontiff was unequivocal about his stance on stem-cell research, denouncing "evils such as euthanasia, infanticide and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos destined for destruction in the process."

The Pope's stand creates political problems for Mr. Bush, who does not want to alienate America's 44 million Catholics, even if many of them do not follow the Pope's moral leadership.

But the position of the Mormon Church, the fifth-largest denomination in the United States, is much more nuanced and may provide the President political cover if he does decide to allow federal funding for the research.

Orrin Hatch, a powerful Republican Senator from Utah, a prominent anti-abortionist and a stern declaimer on the country's decaying morals, has emerged as a vocal proponent of embryonic stem-cell research. "The support of embryonic stem-cell research is consistent with pro-life and pro-family values," he said recently.

The reason, he said, is that unlike Catholic theology, "I believe that human life begins in the womb, not a Petri dish or a refrigerator."

That creates a distinction between stem-cell research, which takes the cells from embryos that have not been implanted in a woman and have no chance of coming to term, and abortion, which removes an embryo that otherwise would be born as a baby.

Mr. Hatch is joined in his views by the other four Mormon Senators, a powerful conservative bloc in the 100-member body.

"I believe that being pro-life means helping the living," Gordon Smith, a Republican Senator from Oregon and a Mormon, testified recently, before restating Mr. Hatch's position that life begins in the womb.

The Mormon Church has carefully refrained from officially stating when it thinks life begins and has not staked out a position on stem- cell research, saying only that "it merits careful scrutiny."

The Mormon Senators have been joined by Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and a religious Jew, who adds further religious legitimacy to the pro stem-cell wing.

But the stem-cell backers have been attacked by many conservative Republicans, many of whom belong to more conventional Protestant denominations.

Recently, three Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and J.C. Watts, put out a statement saying, "It is not pro-life to rely on an industry of death, even if the intent is to find cures for diseases."

As many as 75 Senators are thought to support stem-cell research. But many of them are Democrats and are viewed with suspicion by religious conservatives.

As Mr. Bush grapples with the thorniest issue of his presidency, Mormon theology could allow him to fund research that polls say 60% of Americans approve of without alienating all of his conservative followers.