President Bush and Pope John Paul II, meeting today in Rome, have taken the same stance on one of the most controversial and consequential issues in human history: the use of human embryos in research that results in their destruction.
But soon the American leader will decide whether to stick with his strong campaign position against such research, or to compromise and permit federal funding for exploration that scientists say holds tremendous potential to cure debilitating illnesses.
For the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the nation's other two largest denominations, Southern Baptist and United Methodist, the decision represents a crucial moment - in terms of both this presidency and America's approach to the biotech era.
Still, the religious community is not of one accord on the issue. Some, such as the Presbyterian Church USA and the Reform Jewish movement, have come out in favor of limited embryo-based research. The disparities are rooted in different views about key elements of the debate - when human life begins, whether a desirable outcome justifies controversial means, and what this decision could mean for future ones involving the biotech world.
Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, religious communities have been grappling with the implications of this era - a task greatly complicated by rapid technological advances. Last week, for example, two private labs announced they are creating human embryos for research by cloning and other methods - an act long seen as taboo.
This full-speed-ahead approach to genetic technologies, as well as the moral crossroads of destroying early human life to save other lives, has led the three largest US denominations to oppose US funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
"This debate is about the dignity due a human embryo, but also about where the limits are," says Jaydee Hanson, spokesman for the United Methodist Church. "What we are really arguing about is whether the public at large has a role in saying what kind of research should go forward rapidly and what kind shouldn't."
A recent Gallup poll shows 57 percent of Americans say they don't know enough about embryonic stem-cell research to support or oppose it.
Still, 54 percent believe the research is morally wrong, but 69 percent say it may be necessary.
This last point some religious groups vigorously dispute. While they agree on the obligation to try to cure diseases, they say proponents are touting benefits that are uncertain and lie far in the future. The scientific community and biotech industry encourage the sense of inevitability because they don't want limits set, some say. Most important, the religious groups add, other morally acceptable means are available that should be explored first.
"It's a question of conscience," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "To compel millions who find such research unconscionable to support it with our tax money is abhorrent."
The National Institutes of Health's recent report said research is needed with both embryonic and adult stem cells because the former holds the possibility of accomplishing more things.
But Catholic, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and Episcopal churches say the emphasis should be on adult stem cells, for which numerous clinical uses have already been discovered.
To families awaiting the potential benefits from embryonic research, Mr. Hanson says, "My father has Parkinson's and diabetes, and my mother has Alzheimer's - so I understand what it means to grasp at any hope. But it's also important not to confuse one strategy with the goal."
Not all opposing churches share the Catholic and Southern Baptist view that a human person is created at the moment of conception.
But they say early human life deserves moral respect, and therefore this strategy requires deep ethical exploration.
Lutheran ethicist Gilbert Meilander argues that the moral reasoning fundamental to "just war" is pertinent to the stem-cell debate. In this reasoning, a "supreme emergency" must be present both to go to war and to use strategies that otherwise would be ethically unacceptable.
In an essay in the January Hastings Center Report, he elaborates on why this situation does not represent such an emergency, since the end does not justify the means when other reasonable strategies are available.
It's not just this decision that is at stake, opponents say. "Once you step off this cliff, you are in free fall," says Dr. Land. "If it's all right to kill babies to get tissue for research, then how do you say you can't create babies for the sole purpose of killing them?"
Baptists, he adds, base their view on biblical statements such as that in Jeremiah, "where God says, 'Before you were in your mother's womb I knew you....' "
When life begins
Supporters of the research disagree that embryos less than two weeks old, which are those used to harvest stem cells, are human persons. The Reform Jewish movement wrote the president last week supporting federal funding, based on the "primary responsibility to save human life" and "an estimated 128 million Americans afflicted with conditions that may benefit."
Richard Address, director of family concerns for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says Jewish tradition holds that "a fetus less than 40 days old is not considered a human being" and "that God has given us this power to create these technologies." Conservative Jews also support the research, while the Orthodox do not.
Some Muslim jurists differ over whether "ensoulment" takes place in 40 or 120 days, Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, told a recent public forum. Stem-cell research is acceptable in Islamic law, he added, due to its therapeutic benefits.
The Presbyterian Church USA passed a resolution last month in support of the research.
Yet most religious groups see the necessity for setting limits and for greater oversight of both public and private research. "We draw limits in other areas, such as biological and nuclear weapons," Hanson says. "One standard is when something affects all humanity - and we're just one step from making permanent changes in the human genome."
The US Congress is now considering bills that would ban human cloning, including in some cases, cloning for research purposes. Some in the Senate are preparing legislation to support stem-cell research should the president not approve the regulations he is considering.
Sen. Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, who is anti-abortion and close to the president, has proposed a compromise on embryonic stem-cell research that would fund it under very strict guidelines and create a strong public oversight system.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor