President Obama’s new stem cell
research policy was expected – but the way he framed it was totally unexpected
to me as a pro-choice minister. Rather than elevating science above all, he
spoke “as a person of faith” – those are his words. And he said: “I believe we
are called to care for each other and to work to ease human suffering.” He was
clear that his religious views informed his policy and that using federal funds
for research using stem cells from existing embryos that are slated to be
destroyed is fully consistent with respect for human life.
You would have to know a lot
about religious positions on research with embryonic stem cells to know that
Obama is firmly in the mainstream of religion on this issue. You wouldn’t know
that from most press coverage, which routinely says that religious groups are
against this research and health advocates – secular groups – are for it. In
most of the American press, “religious” is a synonym for anti-choice or, in this
case, anti-research with stem cells from embryos. In short, the press buys the
Religious Right storyline that they have a lock on religion. In this scenario,
the rest of us – we who are pro-choice, who believe it’s moral and ethical to
use embryos slated for destruction to advance science and save lives – are
somehow not religious, even if we worship and live according to our
understanding of our faiths.
President Obama’s words reflect
sentiments of his denomination, the United Church of Christ: “…by banning the
research, we foreclose the possibility of doing all we can to improve the lot of
the living, and in many cases giving them new life…” They also reflect the
statement adopted by the RCRC Board of Directors in 2000: that “excess embryos
slated for destruction must not be placed above persons whose pain and suffering
might be alleviated due to the knowledge gained from studying them.” They
reflect the view that being “pro-life” cannot be reduced to being pro-embryo or
pro-fetus; life is much greater and life is the common good.
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This new policy is a radical leap
forward. As the President said, “sound science and moral values” are not
inconsistent in this revised policy. It’s not only about removing the
restrictions placed on federal funding of research with embryonic stem cells,
the cells that potentially have the ability to cure some of our most devastating
diseases. It’s about acting as healers and creators of a better life and rising
above the narrow and often petty definitions that some claim to be the whole and
only truth. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a new understanding that
people who are religious and religious institutions themselves have many
different views on bioethics. In announcing this policy as he did, President
Obama also announced a fresh start for religious freedom and respect for
religious diversity on controversial issues. Change has come!