The Stem Cell Conundrum
by Ronald M. Green
Until it was overshadowed by the tragic events of September 11, the issue
of human stem cells was the most important religion story in America. It
raised perplexing questions about the moral status of nascent human life and
how we should balance the promise of new treatments for disease against the
sanctity of human life at its various stages.
Religious communities have traditionally addressed many of these
questions. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the weeks before and
after President Bush’s August 9 pronouncement on stem cell research, many
newspapers carried articles or columns dealing with the religious or ethical
dimensions of the issue.
How useful were these articles in helping the American people understand
the contours of this debate? Did they identify the leading ethical and
religious issues? Did they assist readers in formulating their own responses
to the issues?
A review of over 100 news stories, editorials, and op-ed pieces suggest
that the answers are, respectively: not very, not really, and probably not.
The reportage was usually confined to a short catalogue of religious
views on "when human life begins" that omitted any mention of
other important issues. News stories and commentary tended to
overlook significant disagreements and differing perspectives within
religious communities, and completely ignored the critical question of what
role religious views should play in forming public policy.
Rather than singling out one example of such coverage, I have created a
composite of very similar articles that appeared over the course of the
spring and summer in such papers as the Houston Chronicle, the Christian
Science Monitor, and the Omaha World-Herald (see facing page).
The first problem with this story is that it does not consider what a
"religious group" is for purposes of taking moral positions.
Nowhere do we find any treatment of the sources, significance, or
authoritativeness of what are largely ecclesiastical statements issued by
church hierarchies or spokespersons. Clearly, there are important
differences between traditions that have formal teaching authorities (such
as Roman Catholics), and those that do not (the Southern Baptists or
Even where a religious tradition is set up to deliver authoritative moral
pronouncements, there may be a lot more variation than this story suggests.
We are told, for example, that "there is no moral ambiguity" when
it comes to the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to embryonic stem cell
research. In support of this statement, several remarks are offered by the
president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But the story fails
to consider the extent to which Bishop Fiorenza speaks for the nation’s
64.4 million Catholics.
In contrast to the type of story represented by the composite, articles
that focused on the politics of the stem cell issue recognized that American
Catholics do not share the views of the hierarchy. For example, excellent
discussions by Gloria Borger in U.S. News & World Report and
Terry Mattingly in the Knoxville News-Sentinel pointed out that a
majority of Roman Catholics—in some polls as many as 72 per cent—support
human embryonic stem cell research.
Behind these numbers lies the fact that the Roman Catholic laity
comprises not one but two sub-communities with very different moral and
religious orientations. The larger sub-community, composed of those who do
not regularly attend Mass, generally votes Democratic, is
"pro-choice" on abortion, and supports stem cell research. A
smaller sub-community of regular churchgoers vigorously opposes abortion,
tends to value the church’s teachings on sexuality and reproduction, and
strongly backed the Republican candidate for president in the last election.
It was this conservative lay sub-community that President Bush and his
advisers perceived as constituting the special "Catholic"
challenge in the President’s stem cell decisions. Not discussing such
complexities in stories that report religious perspectives suggests a more
uniform Catholic view than in fact exists.
Further undermining journalistic claims to the effect that "the
Roman Catholic Church is opposed to stem cell research" is the
existence of real disagreements among Catholic theologians and teachers. A
small number of articles, notably stories by Teresa Watanabe in the Los
Angeles Times and Nicholas Wade in the New York Times, quoted
progressive theologians like Yale’s Margaret Farley to the effect that the
very early embryo possesses certain characteristics—the possibility of
becoming twins in particular—that challenge the view that "ensoulment"
must be assumed to take place at conception. Only very rarely did an article
point out that Roman Catholicism has not always accorded the early embryo
the same degree of moral value that recent magisterial teaching does.
Indeed, the only place I found this was in a commentary by a Catholic priest
in the Irish Times.
What is true of the Roman Catholic communion also applies to many other
religious traditions. Newspapers may be forgiven for trying briefly
to summarize a denomination’s "official" teachings with a
sentence like "Southern Baptists believe that human embryos bear the
image and likeness of God and thus are ‘protectable human life.’"
But such reportage obscures the enormous diversity of Southern Baptists’
actual views and practices on reproductive and medical matters that relate
to embryonic existence.
The perfunctory treatment of religious positions in the stem cell debate
was matched by the coverage of the theological and moral considerations that
underlie those positions. Most writers understood that a religious tradition’s
teaching on the moral status of the early embryo was a key factor in shaping
its stance on stem cell research. But there was a tendency to reduce moral
discussion to this matter alone. Other relevant theological and ethical
considerations were largely ignored.
Consider the question of using spare embryos—embryos remaining from
infertility procedures—as a source for stem cells. The fact that almost
all such embryos are destined to be destroyed confronts even those who are
committed to the full and equal humanity of the very early embryo with a
difficult question. Should one sustain moral principle and oppose the use of
these embryos (and cell lines derived from them), or permit it on the
grounds that it is better to bring some good out of evil?
Traditionally handled by moral theologians under the category of
"cooperation or complicity with evil," this question is crucial to
understanding the complex chain of reasoning used by some religious
conservatives to justify stem cell research. It is also central to some of
the policy choices that faced the President. As a moral and religious issue,
however, it received virtually no attention in the press coverage.
The inattention to theological specifics was particularly problematic
when it came to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the
Mormons. The LDS church has, as the composite article says, "not taken
a position on the issue," but this bare fact was utterly inadequate to
explain the critical positioning of Mormon senators during the stem cell
debate in Washington.
Even though Mormons share the broadly "pro-life" position of
conservative Protestant communities, many Mormon politicians—including all
five Mormons in the U.S. Senate—were outspoken in their support of
federally financed stem cell research. Why?
As Drew Clark pointed out in an excellent article posted in the online
journal Slate August 2, Mormons believe that a human
being lives as a spirit-child of God before coming into being in this world.
An individual human life only begins down here when the spirit joins the
physical body some time following conception. Testifying in support of stem
cell research, one of the Mormon senators, Gordon Smith of Oregon, used this
ensoulment theory to defend stem cell research on the grounds that the
onset of a human life—the union of spirit and body—only takes place when
the embryo is implanted in a womb.
It’s important to recognize that the Latter-day Saints have a tradition
of support for scientific and biomedical research stemming from their roots
in the optimistic, technology-inclined environment of mid-nineteenth-century
America. Mormons also believe that human souls are in progress toward a
deified existence on other worlds. These and other factors tend to make them
enthusiastic about forms of technological advance, from space exploration to
Such attitudes show the necessity of understanding a religious tradition’s
formal teachings in the context of its overall "bioethical
sensibility." Not doing so can lead to a serious misreading of a
tradition’s response to an urgent bioethical issue.
For example, although the branches of Judaism tend to disagree sharply
about how nascent human life is to be treated, there is a deep and broad
consensus in Jewish thought that human healing takes the highest priority.
This partly explains the strong support for stem cell research among Jewish
thinkers from the Orthodox to the Reform ends of the spectrum.
A final and very serious deficiency of the stem cell coverage was its
total failure to consider what religious positions ought to mean for our
moral and political choices. Assume for the sake of argument that the
catalogue provided by our composite article is reasonably accurate. What
bearing should any of these positions have on whether the federal government
ought to fund some form or another of stem cell research, or for that matter
on whether it should permit the research to go forward without federal
assistance in the private sector?
If I am a Roman Catholic, it might seem that I have no other option than
to oppose this research at all levels. But before I jump to this conclusion,
a further moral question must be answered. As a citizen in a democracy where
there are many competing views on issues like this one, to what extent am I
obligated to try to insert my religiously informed moral view into law and
Surely not everything that my religion is deeply committed to must be
imposed on others. As a devout Jew or Muslim I do not insist that everyone
eschew the eating of pork or that laws be passed to discourage pork
consumption. Yet where other issues are concerned—both slavery and
abortion are examples—religious believers have sometimes been militant in
their efforts to translate a personal religious position into public policy.
This moral issue of the appropriate limits of religious incursions on
public policy and law is crucial to the stem cell debate. It is an issue
intensively discussed by secular philosophers like John Rawls, Dennis
Thompson, and Amy Gutmann. In different ways and for different reasons
almost every religious tradition also has a body of explicit or implicit
teaching concerning when its adherents must press for uniform public
adherence to its norms and when those norms are a private affair for the
members of the religious community alone.
None of this was touched on in the reportage. No reporter thought to
interview a political philosopher on the appropriate limits of religiously
based ethical interventions in public policy formation. No reporter thought
to ask Bishop Fiorenza or other religious leaders what the bearing of their
church’s view should be on their members’ voting behavior, whether as
citizens or legislative representatives.
This question of the "standing" of religious positions in
policymaking is rapidly becoming one of the most important issues in our
current bioethical debates. Astonishing progress is being made every day in
fields like assisted reproduction, genetics, and end-of-life care. These are
often the very areas where religious traditions have centuries-old positions
that they feel called on to defend. It is no accident that the meetings of
our bioethics panels and commissions are increasingly becoming sites of
As the debates go forward, we must go beyond specific disagreements and
actively discuss the question of how we are going to manage them. Given the
needs and norms of a pluralistic democracy, when is it appropriate for me to
insist on the embodiment of my religiously informed position in public law
and policy? When does such insistance violate the spirit of the principle of
separation of church and state and the democratic moral norm of civil
respect for others’ differing views?
Catalogues of religious positions will not help us answer these
questions. Indeed, to the extent that they suggest that citizens either do
or must follow the teachings of their religious leaders, such catalogues
only exacerbate our problems and sharpen our disagreements.
Media coverage of these new and complex bioethics issues needs to become
more sophisticated. Reporters must not only help the American public
understand the diversity and complexity of bioethical views within religious
communities and theological traditions. They must also be prepared to raise
and help answer the profound question of how citizens in a democracy should
respond to this diversity of religious and ethical views.