It's no secret that the Vatican is not exactly the world's biggest booster of embryonic stem cell research, but recent headlines about comments made by the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family nonetheless created a stir late last week by suggesting that Roman Catholic stem cell researchers face excommunication.
In the July 2 issue of Famiglia Cristiana, a major Catholic magazine in Italy, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo said that "to destroy the embryo is equivalent to an abortion," and that "the excommunication applies to the woman, the doctors, the researchers who eliminate embryos."
The headline in London's Telegraph  read: "Vatican vows to expel stem cell scientists from Church." The
Catholic News Service  went with: "Cardinal: Those involved in stem-cell research face excommunication."
Catholic researchers and experts in Catholic law blasted headlines like those as misleading, and said that the cardinal was simply reiterating a well-known Vatican stance, which is less broad than parts of the news reports indicated.
For one, experts said, the headlines did not point out that the church backs stem cell research using cell lines derived from adults or umbilical-cord blood. To date, most research breakthroughs have been made using adult stem cells.
"We get a lot of careless references to stem cell research" that do not differentiate by the type of stem cells, said David Prentice, a former life sciences professor at Indiana State University, and currently senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington that opposes stem cell research using cells from aborted fetuses.
Some researchers said that the Vatican's excommunication stance does not apply to scientists who use human embryonic stem cells, but had no involvement in the destruction of the embryo. Since stem cell researchers generally are not performing abortions, the impact of the Vatican policy is limited, if not irrelevant, for them.
"It would be those [researchers] who are going out and saying, 'yes, I'm going to go out and take these embryos and destroy them,' " Prentice said.
The Rev. Kevin FitzGerald, research associate professor in oncology at the Georgetown University Medical Center, said that, if he didn't know better, based on the headlines, he would have thought, "well, I guess I'm going to get kicked out [of the church], because I'm a stem cell scientist." Father FitzGerald, however, does not use embryonic stem cells, and said that Georgetown, as a Jesuit institution, does not allow any researchers to work on human embryonic stem cells.
Father FitzGerald agreed with Prentice that the Vatican's stance is that researchers just can't be directly involved in the destruction of the embryos. "It would be equivalent to an abortion," he said. "This isn't anything new. This statement was made in the '90s." Father FitzGerald said, though, that he wouldn't work on human embryonic stem cells, period. "My understanding of the position is that anything that encourages or facilitates the destruction of human embryos is to be avoided," he said. "The more impetus given to stem cell research, that can translate into impetus to destroy more embryos."
Deirdre McQuade, a spokeswoman on abortion and related issues for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the church clarified in 1988 that destroying an embryo, whether in vitro, or in
utero, "is on the same level as abortion." She added that the cardinal's recent comments, as far as she knows, do not represent any "gesture toward officially excommunicating anybody."
Sarah Youngerman, spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota, and for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, which seeks to advance stem cell research, said that "even our Catholic researchers" who use human embryonic stem cells remain undeterred. Minnesota has a Stem Cell Institute where more than 500 people are involved in many areas of stem cell research. "Our [Catholic] researchers feel very strongly that embryos that are going to be discarded anyway serve a greater purpose," Youngerman said. "They feel strongly about them helping to come up with cures for people who are living here today. They haven't stopped being Catholic, but they disagree with the church's position on this one."
Youngerman added that Minnesota researchers are "thrilled" that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) announced last week that he plans to hold a vote on a package of three embryonic stem cell research bills this summer. In May 2005, the House of Representatives passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act,  which would provide government support for research on stem cells from embryos that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics. Senate passage of the bill would have overridden President Bush's 2001 order restricting federally sponsored research using embryonic stem cells, but ethical concerns about stem cell research -- some people have expressed concern that stem cells will lead to cloning, and anti-abortion advocates have argued that using the cells is like taking a life -- stopped the bill before it even got to a vote.
Frist has publicly endorsed embryonic stem cell research. The other two bills in the package, along with the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, are less contentious. One would promote research into methods of using stem cells without destroying an embryo, and the other would ban "fetal farming," which is the implanting of embryos into women so that cells can be cultivated.