The President’s Statement Permitting Federal Funding for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research:
A Theological Analysis

Margaret Doris-Piece, Fall, 2001


"I have made this decision with great care, and I pray it is the right one."

—George W. Bush, August 9, 2001


Many scientists believe that research on human embryonic stem cells, components of human embryos created in laboratories, will eventually yield cures to a number of devastating human conditions including juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced he would permit federally funded research on existing stem cells lines derived from human embryos.  He prohibited the federal funding of research on any cell lines created after that date. (See

According to Bush, his decision was based on the answers to two questions:  "First, are these frozen embryos human life, and therefore, something precious to be protected?  And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?"

"At its core," Bush continued, "this issue forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science.  It lies at a difficult moral intersection, juxtaposing the need to protect life in all its phases with the prospect of saving and improving life in all its stages."

Bush defended his decision to limit federal funding to the 60  privately-created cell lines his advisers presumed were already in existence on the grounds (see that "[t]his allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line, by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have at least the potential for life." For the existing cell lines, Bush said, "the life and death decision has already been made."

Bush’s announcement culminated years of debate that began in the mid-1960s, when scientists began working with embryonic stem cells in animal models. In 1995, Congress banned federal funding for destructive research using human embryos. Under the Clinton administration, however, federally funded scientists could conduct experiments on stem cell lines as long as they did not themselves participate in embryo destruction. That permission was largely moot, as it was not until the fall of 1998 that the first report of a successful isolation of human embryonic stem cells—done, of necessity, without federal support—was published. 

Legal, ethical and economic concerns have all been voiced in the debate over the use of human embryonic stem cells, as have religious considerations. The president indicated his own religious beliefs were central in his deliberations. " My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs," he told the American public. "[I] believe human life is a sacred gift from our creator."  However, other than implying that we are absolved from moral responsibility when the "life and death" decision has already been made, the president did not elaborate on this personal theology that shaped public policy.  Most significantly, he did not directly address his own question: "Are these frozen embryos human life?"

The president’s reluctance to address this question does not mean that this and related questions are not proper topics for theological inquiry. And while in a pluralistic society a Christian theological analysis cannot dominate—as no less an authority than Augustine observed, civil law as opposed to church law must be based on a consensus of the governed—it should be articulated.

Among the theological questions human embryonic stem cell research raises are the following:

  • When does a human embryo become a human life?
  • If you accept that a human embryo is a "potential" life, whose rights are paramount: those of the potential human being, or those of the existing human beings whose lives might be improved by research on that embryo’s cells?
  • Is there any difference between using "unwanted" embryos that might otherwise be discarded, and deliberately creating embryos for research?
  • Who "owns" these embryos and their cells?  Is commodification of human cellular life of theological concern?
  • Is there a theological distinction to be made between individually created embryos and cloned embryos?
  • Human embryonic stem cells cannot sustain themselves indefinitely. Typically, they are grown on and supported by embryonic mouse cells.  Theoretically, there is the possibility of transfer of small bits of genetic material, or of cross-species viruses. Does this interaction with and nurturing of human cells by another species have theological implications?

How do we determine what God’s will is with regard to human embryonic stem cell research? As theologian Peter C. Hodgson observes, when attempting to understand God’s self-involvement in world process,  "we have only ‘the glimmer of ambiguous symbols’ and intuitions based on faith" (p. 250)

  That intuition brings us to the knowledge, however, that God, the "free and transcendent," as Karl Rahner writes (p. 250) "…has bound himself:  he has taken up a position with regard to humanity and the finite which he himself freely declares to be definitive, and of which he himself says he will never go beyond it again and never withdraw from it." (p. 250) It seems to me that as I think more about the question of human embryonic stem cell research, the overarching theological concern that brings together all the questions I have raised is fidelity:  to whom, or to what are we required to be faithful?  The potential of the embryo?  The sick who have the potential to be cured?  God is for us -- but as we try to understand all that implies and requires, whom are we supposed to be for?  Our faith, Rahner writes, "tells us that we are responsible before God for this world and our tasks in it, insofar as they depend on the freedom with which we are entrusted." (p. 609)

A human fertilized egg is totipotent (, meaning it has the potential to create all the specialized cells that make up a human being, as well as the intrauterine support structure necessary for fetal development.  After approximately four days (and several cycles of cell division) the totipotent cells begin to specialize into a blastocyst.  The outer layer of cells will go on to form support structures like the placenta.  The inner cell mass will become the fetus. These cells are called pluripotent stem cells, because while they can form virtually every type of cell in the human body they cannot give rise to the cells necessary to support fetal development.   Until about day 14, the inner cell mass has the potential to split, forming identical twins (in rare instances, the continue to split, forming identical triplets or quadruplets.) Eventually, these cells will diversify into the 220 types of cells necessary to form a complete human being.

Scientists believe they can take these cells while they are still pluripotent, and coax them into become whatever type of cell they need.  Such a procedure necessitates the destruction of the embryo.

Human embryonic stem cells are typically taken from unwanted embryos that were created in in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.  It is also possible to deliberately create embryos for research purposes, using the same methods employed by IVF clinics.

Pluripotent stem cells have also been extracted from fetal tissue removed during elective abortions.  The cells were retrieved from the areas of the fetus that would have developed into testes or ovaries.  Researchers also theorize that it may be possible to clone human embryos, continuing the existence—or continually recreating the existence—of an individual embryonic cell line.

When attempting a Christian theological analysis of an ethical concern, it is logical to begin with scripture.  Aquinas, drawing upon Aristotle, taught that while philosophy is available to everyone, theology is based on revelation and logical deduction, or reason, from revelation. The source of revelation, for Christians, is scripture.  However, scripture has no direct insights to offer relating to the status of pre-implantation embryos.  The closest corollary is abortion, and the Bible provides little in the way of guidance here, as well.  As professor of religious studies Roy Bowen Ward notes, when it comes to abortion "The silence of the Bible is curious, and one should be careful about arguing from silence."

The Old Testament makes no prohibition against voluntary abortion. In Exodus 21, however, under the laws concerning slaves, it is noted that a man who hurts a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, must pay her master just compensation. However, should the woman die, the penalty shall be "life for life", indicating the woman’s life is of greater value than that of the fetus. (Ex. 21:22-25). The Septuagint version of Ex. 21:22-23 goes further, differentiating between and unformed and formed fetus, the latter accorded the status of an independent person.   No mention is made of abortion in the New Testament.

            The Didache (see, however, condemned abortion: "You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery…you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide." (2.2) It is unclear, however, if this prohibition was meant to include the early fetus. Biblical scholar Martin J. Buss suggests that it was the influence of Greek physicians, as well as reports of sacramental consumption of ritually aborted fetuses by certain Gnostics, that influenced a Christian consideration of, and articulation of, a prohibition of abortion.

         It was Tertullian who proposed the principle of  homo est qui est futurus : the being that will be a human is already to be regarded as a human.  However, Tertullian and Augustine both found that medically necessary abortions permissible, as the greater good was served by saving the life of the mother.  Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both objected to abortion on the grounds that it was a sin against marriage, since it nullified the only permissible reason for sexual relations: procreation. However, both also held that ensoulment occurred at some point after conception, and that it was not until that point that the fetus became a human being. "But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seed which have not been fructified," asked Augustine. Nearly a thousand years later, Aquinas declared that the sin of abortion was not the sin of homicide unless the fetus was fully ensouled. He claimed the fetus first possessed a vegetative soul, then an animal soul, and finally—at approximately 40 days for male fetuses and 80 days for female fetuses—a fully formed, rational soul.

"To me, stem cell research isn’t about the destruction of life; it’s about the opportunity for a better life. For those with certain incurable diseases…this research may be their only chance. My father is one of those people. For the past 15 years, he has suffered from multiple sclerosis….People often say to me, ‘You were one of those embryos in a petri dish. How could you of all people be comfortable with the destruction of other embryos?’ But the embryo…formed 20 years ago was not me—it was just a handful of cells. I became me, and a loving member of my family, once I was implanted in my mother’s womb."

—Elizabeth Carr, who in 1981 was the first IVF baby born in America

There is present, then, a more or less continuous position from Aristotle in the 4th century before Christ to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, that the process of animation or ensoulment is gradual. The idea that ensoulment does not occur automatically at conception is consistent with what science now tells us of fetal development. If each individual is though to possess a unique soul, then it is difficult to see how ensoulment could occur before day 14, when twinning is still possible. We also know that as many at 43 percent of natural conceptions end in miscarriage, with many of these occurring before the woman is aware she is pregnant. Historically, the church has not regarded a miscarried embryo as a lost human life.

  Only in more recent times has the view arisen of abortion as indefensible on the ontological grounds that human personhood begins at the moment of conception. From the mid-18th to mid-20th century, in part because of the development and refinement of the teaching of ensoulments, and in part as a reaction against certain social trends, the Catholic Church began expanding its abortion prohibition. In 1869, not long after abortion was first outlawed in America, the Catholic Church dropped the reference to "ensouled fetus" in the excommunication for abortion, making implicit the understanding that understanding that ensoulment occurs at conception, and therefore there is no point in fetal development at which abortion is permissible.

In its 1973 decision legalizing abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court decided embryos and fetuses are not "persons" nor are they entitled to legal protection until late in pregnancy. But in 1999, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission acknowledged that most Americans believe "human embryos deserve respect as a form of human life."

In saying human embryonic stem cell research serves "a greater good …that has the potential to save and improve other lives," Bush affirms that the already-born have a higher moral claim upon our fidelity. When the right to life of the embryo is invoked in this debate, a counter right must also be recognized, and that is the right to health of persons who suffer from diseases for which stem-cell research may provide therapy, or even cure. Disease not only affects the body but it can rob the dignity from a person. Human stem cell research arguably has the potential to restore dignity to the suffering.           

Bush would appear to believe that the embryo is, at first, merely possessed of potential. "Research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions, because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life," the president said in his address. "Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being." However, after making these remarks he backtracks, posing first his unanswered question "are these frozen embryos human life?", and then claiming human embryos "have at least [emphasis added] the potential for life."

It is this respect for embryo’s potential, if not actual, human life, that led the president to restrict the federal funding to cell lines derived from embryos created in in vitro fertilization programs, and donated to research without financial inducements. It is morally acceptable to destroy these embryos, the president claims, because they will be "destroyed anyway."

That is not actually the case. The vast majority of surplus embryos are not slated for deliberate destruction. Occasionally they are donated, as the president acknowledged, and implanted in another woman. Sometimes, usually as the result of a divorce settlement or clinic contract, they are deliberately thawed. But most are maintained indefinitely in a cryogenic limbo, where they may, at worst, be passively deteriorating.

"In recent weeks," the president told the American public, " we learned that scientists have created human embryos in test tubes solely to experiment on them.  This is deeply troubling, and a warning sign that should prompt all of us to think through these issues very carefully." The president did not elaborate as to why he found this more troubling than the destruction of embryos originally slated for implantation. But by refusing to provide federal funds for the creation of research embryos, the president affords these embryos (or really, potential embryos) greater moral status and protection than those given embryos created in infertility treatment programs. From a theological perspective, this is troubling. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the embryos created as part of the in vitro fertilization process are deserving of greater fidelity, and more protection, than those created for research. The former are symbolic of our commitment, following God’s commandment, to bring new life into the world. As such, it is our duty try, as best as possible, to fulfill the commitment implicit in the very act of their creation: attempting to bring them to full human life. "Passive deterioration" is one way of avoiding that responsibility; allowing federal funding when the "life or death" decision has already been made is yet another.

"Researchers are telling us the next step could be to clone human beings to create individual designer stem cells, essentially to grow another you, to be available in case you need another heart or lung or liver," Bush said, without explaining how stems cells could create "another you".

"I strongly oppose human cloning, as do most Americans. We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our convenience."

This opposition is difficult to understand. Cloning, after all, especially at the embryonic stage, is nothing more then twinning. And while the cloning of a developed human being certainly challenges our understanding of each individual as unique before God, embryonic cloning might actually reduce the number of embryos needed to create therapeutic stem cell lines. Scientists believe that embryonic stem cell lines will not be able to be perpetuated indefinitely; over time, each line will experience deterioration. However, if an embryo is cloned – perhaps repeatedly – then multiple identical cell lines can be perpetuated from a single embryo. It is even possible that one day cloning may obviate the need to destroy the original embryo. At present, scientists are able to take one cell from an early embryo and test it for a variety of genetic disorders. If it is disease- free it is allowed to continue its development implanted in a woman’s womb. It is possible that one day scientists may be able to adapt this technology, and allow embryos to "donate" a cell to stem cell research before they are implanted.

"I don’t believe embryos are alive yet. They can’t live to grow to be babies in a petri dish. I know it seems contradictory that I would never abort a child with CF but would go through such a painstaking effort to have a child without CF. But if you look at it another way, technology is a gift from God, since there are some bleak cases of cystic fibrosis. But there are wonderful people, like Cindy Lynn, too. And, you know, we would clone her. We really would."

—Cindy Ray. After her daughter, Cindy Lynn, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis she turned to IVF to avoid giving birth to another child with CF. Four of the embryos were free of the CF gene, and were implanted, resulting in triplets. The other four embryos, all carriers of the gene, were donated to science.

Most, if not all, of the human embryonic stem cell colonies approved for research funding under the Bush guidelines have been grown on top of embryonic mouse cells, known as "feeder" cells. The mouse cells provide an unidentified nutritional or growth factor that helps the human cells to continue to divide. Because they have been in close contact with mouse cells, it is possible either murine DNA or animal viruses have been transferred to the human cells. Under Food and Drug Administration xenotransplantation guidelines designed to minimize the risk of transferring potentially deadly animal viruses to humans, it would be difficult, though not impossible, to use the cells in human clinical trails of potential therapies.

Scientists are working on ways to grow human embryonic cell lines without using mouse cells, but any created after August 9 are ineligible for federal research money.

If it were merely a question of mouse cells being used to sustain human cells, then there would not be any theological concerns—at least for those who find scriptural support for the consumption of animal flesh. Such a situation would be analogous to ingesting meat to sustain a human body. However, the risk of introducing potentially dangerous animal viruses into the human population is not one that should be run if there are other alternatives. To predicate federal funding upon the use of these potentially contaminated cells demonstrates a lack of fidelity to the vulnerable ill whom these therapies are supposed to help, as well as an abdication of stewardship for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

The potential integration of murine DNA into the human cells raises some interesting theological considerations as well. Scientists have already succeeded in grafting human neuronal cells into mice. What if mouse DNA is integrated into human bodies through the use of these stem cell lines? Does it somehow defile God’s human creation, which God has created in God’s image?

People complain about OPEC being a monopoly, but they at least have 11 members.

—Senator Edward Kennedy, noting that the stem cell lines approved by Bush are controlled by only 10 institutions

"As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist," according to Bush. "They were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and they have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely, creating ongoing opportunities for research. I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life-and- death decision has already been made."

Under the Bush plan, federally funded scientists, mostly working out of academic research institutions, would obtain cells derived from embryos destroyed with private money in private labs. These cell lines are controlled by a handful of companies and laboratories around the world, all of who have been busy filing patent applications on various aspects of stem cell technology. Researchers who obtain the cells may well find that the companies will retain potentially lucrative commercial rights to any future discoveries the scientists make.

"Federal dollars help attract the best and brightest scientists," Bush said. "They ensure new discoveries are widely shared at the largest number of research facilities, and that the research is directed toward the greatest public good." By denying federally funded researchers the right to develop their own cells lines, and by allowing private ownership of the most public of resources, our DNA, the government has made it almost certain that the greatest public good will not be done. Our ability to be faithful to the neediest—the vulnerable ill—is seriously compromised. The commodification of that which was freely given us by God is an affront to the Giver.

God has made us stewards of our procreative powers. As stewards, we work with God for the good of the entire created world. When our stewardship is constrained or compromised, the good of the world cannot help but suffer.

"My position on these issues is shaped by deeply held beliefs. I'm a strong supporter of science and technology, and believe they have the potential for incredible good — to improve lives, to save life, to conquer disease. Research offers hope that millions of our loved ones may be cured of a disease and rid of their suffering…. And like all Americans, I have great hope for cures…. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world. And while we're all hopeful about the potential of this research, no one can be certain that the science will live up to the hope it has generated."

—George W. Bush, August 9, 2001


Selected Web Resources

Yahoo’s stem cell research page

Cloning Human Being NBACS June 1997 report

NIH’s Stem Cell Primer

Coverage of Bush’s stem cell decision

Transcript of Bush’s speech

The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics    


Selected Bibliography

Allen, Arthur. How Far Would You Go for a Healthy Kid? Redbook Nov.2001, 102+

Buss, Martin J. The Beginning of Human Life as an Ethical Problem in Moral Issues and Christian Response, Paul T. Jersild and Dale A. Johnson, ed. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.:New York, 1971

Carr, Elizabeth with Susan Dominus. Why I Support Stem Cell research. Glamour Nov. 2001, p 180

Connolly, Ceci, Justin Gillis and Rick Weis. Viability of Stem Cell Plan Doubted. The Washington Post. Aug 20,2001:pA1

Doerflinger, Richard M. The Ethics of Funding Embryonic Stem Cell Research: A Catholic Viewpoint. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 199. Vol 9, no 2. p 137-150

Gillis, Justin and Ceci Connolly. Deal Made in Stem Cell Patent Issues. The Washington Post Online Edition. Sept 5, 2001.

Hodgson, Peter C. God in History:Shapes in Freedom. Abington Press:Nashville, 1989

Jerusalem Bible, The. Doubleday & Co.:Garden City, NY, 1966

McGee, Glenn and Arthur Caplan. The Ethics and Politics of Small Sacrafices in Stem Cell Research. . Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1999. Vol 9, no 2. p 151-158

Meilgender, Gilbert. The Point of a Ban: Or How to Think About Stem Cell Research. Hastings Center Report 2001 31, no 1. p 9-16

Meyer, John R. Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Respect for Life. Journal of Medical Ethics 2000 26, p 166-70

Meyer, Michael J. and Lawrence J. Nelson. Respecting What We Destroy: Reflections on Human Embryo Research. Hastings Center Report 2001 31, no 1. p 16-23

National Institutes of Health. Stem Cell Primer.

Noonan,John T. Jr, ed. The Morality of Abortion:Legal and Historical Perspectives. Harvard University Press:Cambridge, 1970

Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Theological Writings. Crossroad:New York, 1999

Robertson, John A. Ethics and Policy in Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 1999. Vol 9, no 2, p 109-136.