- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

At first glance, the nation’s emotional debate over stem-cell research seems a mere rerun of the unending dispute over abortion. Both involve questions about protecting the development of human life, after all.

But there are important moral and religious distinctions between the two issues, and some groups that oppose abortion are not offended by embryonic stem-cell experiments, even though they necessarily destroy human embryos.

Yale University ethicist Gene Outka frames the issue partly as one of urgency, saying abortion involves a pressing conflict between a pregnant woman and a fetus, whereas limits on stem-cell research merely affect patients who in theory might reap medical benefits at some time.

He also says extraction of stem cells can be considered less morally difficult because it destroys embryos at the earliest stage, while abortion terminates fetuses that are more developed. But some find destruction of even tiny embryos troublesome because, as Mr. Outka puts it, “the requisite genetic information renders them unique, and all of us begin at this stage.”

In the religious world, thinking is varied.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice advocates full access to abortion on behalf of mainline Protestants, Conservative and Reform Jews, Unitarians and others. The coalition thinks the medical potential justifies research that employs the test-tube leftovers or aborted fetuses.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “the life of every human being is to be respected” once a sperm and egg unite, and it strongly opposes destroying embryos, whether through abortion or for research. Eastern Orthodox and many evangelical Protestant leaders generally agree.

Last month, the President’s Council on Bioethics issued a 99-page white paper on the biology and morality of four new techniques that might produce stem cells without destroying embryos.

The council’s 18 members differed in their assessments, but agreed that these proposals “and others like them” that could sidestep the embryo problem altogether “deserve the nation’s careful and serious consideration.”

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