Media Misreport Catholic Embryonic Stem Cell Research Excommunication

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 3, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Media Misreport Catholic Embryonic Stem Cell Research Excommunication

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 3, 2006

Washington, DC ( — When a leading Vatican spokesman last week said scientists who engage in embryonic stem cell research would be excommunicated because their research involves the destruction of human life, that should have been an easy concept for media outlets to report. However, some news agencies reported simply that the Catholic Church would expel researchers who engage in stem cell research in general.

The London Telegraph’s headline, “Vatican vows to expel stem cell scientists from Church," makes it appear the Catholic Church opposes all stem cell research, even though it has no problem with adult stem cells.

“We get a lot of careless references to stem cell research” that don’t explain the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells, explains David Prentice, a former life sciences professor at Indiana State University and current advisor at the Family Research Council.

Prentice told Inside Higher Education magazine that the Catholic Church’s stance applies only to scientists who are actually destroying human embryos — days-old unborn children — to obtain their stem cells.

“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 some of the media coverage he’s seen of the excommunication issue made him believe he would be kicked out of the church, even though he doesn’t conduct embryonic stem cell research.

"[W]ell, I guess I’m going to get kicked out [of the church], because I’m a stem cell scientist," he said jokingly after reading some of the misleading coverage.

“It would be equivalent to an abortion,” Fitzgerald told IHE of researchers destroying human life to attempt to advance science. “This isn’t anything new. This statement was made in the ’90s.”

“My understanding of the position is that anything that encourages or facilitates the destruction of human embryos is to be avoided,” he told IHE. “The more impetus given to stem cell research, that can translate into impetus to destroy more embryos.”

Yet, Sarah Youngerman, spokeswoman for the University of Minnesota, and for the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a lobbyist group that favors the unproven research, said Catholic scientists who engage in embryonic stem cell research appear to be unconcerned about the excommunication promise.

“Our [Catholic] researchers feel very strongly that embryos that are going to be discarded anyway serve a greater purpose,” Youngerman told IHE. “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.”

The controversy started when Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo discussed excommunication with Famiglia Cristiana, a major Catholic magazine in Italy.

He said that 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.”