On Faith: From the Panel

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about an aspect of religion. This week's question: When he lifted the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, President Obama said, "As a person of faith . . . I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research -- and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly." Do you agree?

In giving government support to promising research utilizing stem cells, which can enhance the life and health of millions of Americans, President Obama has shown not just political courage, but a moral vision that resonates with deep religious reverence for life.

This decision resonates with the Jewish tradition, in which preserving life and promoting health are among the most precious of values. . . .

These values have informed our affirmative commitment to medical science throughout the ages. Judaism has always encouraged the use of our God-given wisdom for scientific and medical advances. It was thus encouraging that President Obama set this decision in a broader commitment to reform executive-branch science policy, making clear his administration's commitment to root science policy in science fact no matter what the administration's ideology, rather than root its science policy in ideology no matter what the science facts.

Today, stem cell research holds promise to repair and regenerate human tissue, nerve cells and skin cells. Such lifesaving medical therapy depends on the extensive scientific research upon which our contemporary practice of medicine is based. Since research into human stem cells partakes of the mitzvah (commandment) of healing, surely our society ought to support it.

-- David Saperstein, director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

White House representatives portrayed President Obama's executive order as a "return to scientific integrity in government." Implied in this characterization is that religiously informed ideology has been used to restrict scientific inquiry for political ends. But in so marginalizing religiously informed critiques of public policy, Obama is unintentionally spinning a kind of religious narrative of his own that has equally sectarian implications. . . .

Republican critics, of course, would characterize Obama's liberalism as ideological in and of itself. But the ideological basis of Obama's decision on embryonic stem cell research goes deeper. During the campaign, Obama pointedly observed that banning government funding for embryonic stem cell research had harmed American competitiveness. . . .

According to this interpretative frame, science becomes a cloak for acquisition and domination since competitiveness is itself an ideological construct that legitimates the exercise of power. . . .

The strongest arguments for stem cell research point to its benefits for treating Parkinson's disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Studying and using stem cells from destroyed embryos or blastocysts is moral precisely because this work holds great promise for developing therapies or even cures for these illnesses. . . .

The central policy issue and moral quandary in this debate is the status of the human embryo. It is important to note that many religious denominations do not oppose all forms of stem cell research, only those that rely upon the destruction of human embryos or blastocysts. With regard to the question as to when human life begins, Obama famously responded that such a determination was above his "pay grade." Such a statement could be interpreted to actually imply a presumption in favor of the moral status of the human embryo precisely because even a fertilized egg exists within an observable continuum of human life that begins with conception. Maintaining the integrity of this continuum informs Catholic opposition to the kind of stem cell research that the Obama administration now seeks to fund. Even those who are agnostic about the moral status of the embryo might argue for prudence when legislating anything that involves the use of "human material" -- a phrase itself that should give us pause. . . .

-- Mathew N. Schmalz, professor of religious studies, College of the Holy Cross

To read the complete essays and see more "On Faith" commentary, hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, go to http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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