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Human induced pluripotent stem cells

Where they stand

Stem cells | Breakthrough entrenches religious divide

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

Moral conservatives hailed the latest breakthrough on stem cells when two medical journals last month reported that scientists have artificially created versatile human stem cells as an ethical and political win-win. The "induced pluripotent stem cell" (IPSC) may sidestep the moral problem of research using stem cells from human embryos (that are destroyed in the process) and may also have medical benefits. IPSC is considered more efficient and takes matching cells from specific patients. Nonetheless, a New York Times editorial continued demands for public funding of embryo extraction, and critics continue to label opponents of embryo destruction, including President Bush, "anti-science."

The issue remains equally divisive for organized religion. A year ago a National Council of Churches (NCC) policy statement said that because member denominations "hold differing strong opinions" it "neither endorses nor condemns experimentation on human embryos." Some NCC constituents have taken no official stand, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and several black Protestant bodies. (Likewise for candidate Mitt Romney's Mormon Church.)

As with the related abortion issue, the NCC is caught between influential, predominantly white mainline Protestant groups that favor embryo destruction exploitation, and Eastern Orthodox members who abhor it. The non-NCC Catholic Church and others, including the Southern Baptists and National Association of Evangelicals, oppose embryo research.

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In 2001, the Orthodox Church in America bishops declared that "human life begins at conception," bears "genetic uniqueness," and thus requires protection. "We firmly reject any and all manipulation of human embryos for research purposes as inherently immoral," they stated, citing biblical grounds (Psalm 139:13-16, Isaiah 49:1-5, Luke 1:41-44, Romans 3:8). The bishops said post-Holocaust morality requires "informed consent" for experiments with human subjects, which no embryo can grant, and denounced "enormous pressure" from business interests dedicated to embryonic research. Greek and Antiochian Orthodox theologians have issued parallel pronouncements.

Arrayed on the opposite side are the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church, which profess respect for human embryos but believe the therapeutic ends justify the embryonic means, including federal funding.

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