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."
"This action is morally wrong because it encourages the destruction of innocent human life, treating vulnerable human beings as mere products to be harvested," Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said in a statement.
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. "This is good policy for a religiously pluralistic society that cares about human suffering and the relief of human suffering."
Obama alluded to religion in announcing the changes, saying, "As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other 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."
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.
Some groups and faiths are divided on the issue. Muslims disagree over -- among other things -- whether an embryo in the early stage of development has a soul. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon church, has not taken a position.
The Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor from Orlando, Fla., who serves on an Obama White House advisory panel, said he was encouraged by Monday's developments.
"The principle is still that it's not only understandable but in some ways moral to use embryonic stem cells that are destined for destruction for research for helping people," he said. "I think we have to tread very lightly and very carefully, and I think we have to be vigilant for years to come."
But most evangelicals criticized Obama's move. Gilbert Meilaender, a Christian ethicist at Valparaiso University and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, created by President George W. Bush, said Obama's decision was especially disappointing because scientists are advancing toward being able to produce cells that act like embryonic stem cells without destroying any human embryos.
Meilaender said that while there is no good solution for frozen embryos left in storage at fertility clinics, destroying them for stem cell research is not the answer.
"My own position is that having, as it were, produced and used them once in the use of someone else's project, for a reproductive purpose, that using it once for someone else's purpose is enough," said Meilaender, a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Catholic bishops have been outspoken in opposing embryonic stem cell research. Other Catholics, though, are more open to lifting the Bush-era restrictions, with caveats. The Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said restrictions should be put on embryonic stem cell research -- including prohibition on their buying and selling, and using only embryos that otherwise would be destroyed.
"I'm trying to make an argument for some middle ground here," Reese said. "Hopefully down the line we can reach a point where we don't have to use embryonic stem cell research."
Polls show some believers are willing to buck their leaders on the issue. Fifty-nine percent of white, non-Hispanic Catholics and 58 percent of white mainline Protestants favor embryonic stem cell research, according to a poll released in July 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Only 31 percent of white evangelical Protestants, however, favored the research.
Princeton University politics professor Robert George, a Catholic and another member of the Bush-era Council on Bioethics, said the moral argument over embryonic stem cell research is not rooted in religion but in ethics and equality. He said research shows that an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development, so we have to ask ourselves whether all human life should be treated equally, with dignity and respect.
"I don't think the question has anything to do with religion or pulling out our microscope and trying to find souls," George said. "We live in a pluralistic society where some people believe there are no such things as souls. Does that mean we should not have moral objections to killing 17-year-old adolescents?"