Religious Group Endorses Use of Human Embryos in Stem Cell Research

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:27 PM EDT

( - While the Bush administration, the Republican controlled Congress and religious conservative groups are all talking about outlawing the use of human embryos in stem cell research, a left-of-center group called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is calling on President Bush to keep it legal.

"The basis of ... opposition to stem cell research ... is that the embryo is a human being, just like you and me," explained Marjorie Signer, spokeswoman for the coalition. "If they can make that point and get that point accepted, then it makes it that much easier for them to mobilize public opinion not only against abortion but also against family planning," she said.

The Coalition for Reproductive Choice was founded in 1973 to counter religious groups that are opposed to abortion and certain types of birth control. It represents groups affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church and other Christian and Jewish institutions.

According to Signer, the coalition's board of directors took a stand on stem cell research after receiving questions about the issue from legislators and the press. The coalition's board recently "affirmed the morality of using embryonic and fetal tissue, with careful regulation, for vital research that may result in restoring health to those suffering serious illnesses for which there is no cure."

"People who are staunchly pro-life have been won over to stem cell research because stems cells come from embryos that are going to be thrown out because they're not needed for in vitro fertilization," said Signer. "When you do in vitro fertilization (IVF), you create more embryos than you need," she explained. "Some of them are left over, and they're just not going to be given to somebody else. Nobody is going to do that. That would really be bizarre."

According to the Coalition for Reproductive Choice, instead of discarding the extra fertilized eggs or taking the risk that they might die while being stored, it would be better to use the embryos for scientific research to possibly find a cure for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

"There is a lot of belief in the scientific community that stem cells from embryos ... have a lot of promise," said Signer.

Pro-life groups, however, insist the leftover frozen embryos could easily be stored at fertility clinics and offered for adoption to other infertile couples.

Under guidelines established by the Clinton administration, the National Institutes of Health may currently fund stem cell research, but only if the cells are obtained from private sources such as frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization attempts. NIH, in fact, is in the process of accepting applications for stem cell research grants. The deadline for submission is Thursday.

But the Christian Medical Association and Nightlife Christian Adoption are reportedly among the groups suing the government to prevent federal funding of stem cell experiments. Thomas Hungar, the attorney representing the pro-life groups in their lawsuit, says the Clinton administration's guidelines violate the ban on using public money for research because embryos are knowingly destroyed or discarded.

William Saunders, senior fellow in human life studies at the Family Research Council, believes abortion rights advocates should not be defending stem cell research because, he says, it has nothing to do with reproductive choice.

"It's incredible that they're so ideological that they can't separate this," Saunders said of the abortion rights movement.

"You can have the argument that abortion is a conflict of rights between the unborn child ... versus the woman's right ... to control her own body." However, "this is a different issue," said Saunders. "This is where a human being, without their consent, can be used for research to benefit someone else. It's a living human being. It's not a situation where you have even the question of the remains of an aborted human being. This is a live human being that has to be killed."

Saunders believes the stem cell research controversy highlights the need to reconsider the whole practice of in vitro fertilization. "I would say this makes us think about IVF. I think people did sloppy thinking with IVF. The practice of intentionally creating excess embryos is really troublesome. It seems to me that it's obvious that the number of frozen embryos has created some pressure and been exploited by some to create pressure, to do something with them.

"I don't think that was thought about when people thought about IVF, but they sure as hell should think about it now," Saunders said. "The question should be, 'What is it ethical to do?' not 'What can we do?' Otherwise, we put everybody's humanity at risk."