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Stem Cell Research at the Crossroads of Religion and Politics
By Pew Forum   |  Nov 27, 2010

Embryonic stem cell research, which uses special cells found in three- to five-day-old human embryos to seek cures for a host of chronic diseases, has sparked a major moral and political debate in the United States. In the 10 years since University of Wisconsin scientists announced they had harvested potentially life-saving cells from surplus embryos donated by fertility clinics, the ethical dilemma presented by the studies has absorbed activists on both sides of the issue and has risen to the top of state and federal political agendas.

For patients and their families, embryonic stem cell research offers the hope of cures for chronic and debilitating conditions, such as juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and blindness. For scientists, it represents a revolutionary path to discovering the causes and cures for many more human maladies. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, that is, they have the unique ability to develop into any of the 220 cell types in the human body. In addition to their versatility, embryonic stem cells are easier to grow in the laboratory than adult stem cells.

But many opponents, including some religious leaders, believe that stem cell research raises the same moral issues as abortion. Furthermore, opponents maintain that scientists have other promising ways of reaching the same goals, including non-controversial adult stem cell research. But proponents of the research point out that there is no substitute at this time for research using embryos. In addition, they say, the research has resulted in the destruction of only a few hundred embryos, making it fundamentally different from abortion, which results in the destruction of millions of human embryos every year.

Different religious groups hold a wide variety of opinions on embryonic stem cell research. For the Catholic Church and many other Christian groups, life begins at conception, making the research tantamount to homicide because it results in the destruction of human embryos. “Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and are subjects with rights; their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence,” the late Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. Other religious groups do not take a position on the issue, and some, including many Jewish and more-liberal Christian groups, support embryonic stem cell research.

National polls indicate that a slim majority of Americans support the research. According to a 2007 national poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 51 percent say it is more important to conduct stem cell research that could result in new medical cures than to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos. The same poll found that 35 percent say it is more important not to destroy embryos.

As the pace of the cutting-edge research quickens and the prospect for cures moves closer to reality, advocates on both sides of the debate see the possibility that, within a few years, scientists will find a way to harvest stem cells without destroying embryos. In late 2007, researchers in Wisconsin and Tokyo announced they had transformed ordinary human skin cells into those that appeared to have the same properties as embryonic stem cells. Religious leaders hailed the discovery as proof that the destruction of embryos is unnecessary. President George W. Bush, in his 2008 State of the Union address, said the groundbreaking new research “has the potential to move us beyond the divisive debates of the past.”

But far from resolving the moral quandary, the highly publicized breakthrough has only intensified the discussion. Scientists around the world quickly cautioned that, although promising, the new research did not guarantee that adult stem cells could successfully be transformed into pluripotent cells. Many, including James Thomson, the researcher who led the team at the University of Wisconsin, publicly argued that embryonic stem cell research should continue.

In Europe, only the United Kingdom, Sweden and Belgium allow all forms of embryonic stem cell studies. On the other end of the spectrum, Austria, Ireland, Poland and Lithuania have outlawed all forms of stem cell research. Germany and Italy have criminalized the extraction of stem cells from human embryos, but scientists are permitted to conduct research on stem cells created elsewhere. Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands restrict scientists to producing stem cell lines from surplus embryos that fertility clinics plan to destroy.

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