Stem cell research in the US: religious views

The main reason for the US’s opposition to stem cell research is based on their culture. Immigration has been the major source of population growth since the 16th century, when Europeans immigrated to the US in search of a better life. Later on, immigrants from other continents started arriving, leading to a mixture in both cultural background and religion. However, the majority are Christians (76%), where 51% identify themselves as Protestants and 25% as Catholics. Non-Christian religions, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, make up 3.9% to 5.5 % of the adult population. These figures are taken from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam will be discussed further in this article.

Compared to other countries the USA is a religiously active nation, where people often attend religious services. A research showed that 40% of the population attended religious services weekly, compared to the UK where only 5% where in church on a weekly basis. The survey also took scientists in the genetic field into account, and 36% of these attended services at least once a month. This research shows how important religion is in the US, and also explains the anti-abortion movements’ position in the country.

The main topics in the ethical debate are:

  1. Does the fetus have intrinsic value in whatever development stage it is in, and wherever it is (in womb or dish)?
  2. Can stem cell research be separated from the abortion debate?

There are of course other questions as well, but the political debate has focused on these so far. They are also more interesting from a religious perspective, since they vary a lot. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the most vocal participants in the debate. These are however, very conservative, and do not represent all Catholics. A worldwide survey conducted by the Boston Globe even suggests that 63% of people with a Catholic belief approve of stem cell research and funding. Roman Catholic doctrine says that embryos have an intrinsic value. This led the Pope to publicly express his disapproval of this kind of research after President Bush’s speech to the nation on stem cell research and funding. The Popes disapproval was not made public ex cathedra, which would have made it Gods word, and therefore become Catholics belief. This view have started to mellow, and some theologians evens suggests that human embryos less than 14 days old cannot be considered as individualized human entities. At approximately 14 days the primitive streak is formed, which marks the point when the clump of cells turn into embryo and placenta. This is based on Old Catholic tradition, where the soul is not embodied early in the development. Protestants in the US have, on the other hand, always supported science. This is based on the belief that the world God created is faulty, and that humans and God have to cooperate to create a better world. Denominations like the Presbyterian Church and United Church of Christ support stem cell research based on this, while more conservative groups, like Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and United Methodist Church believe in the intrinsic value of the fetus. In Jewish law there is a difference between a fetus in the body and outside, and for the first 40 days the fetus is described as “water” in Jewish tradition. This makes it easier for people of Jewish origin to accept stem cell research, since such research can treat disease and give access to treatment.  Muslims also have a more liberal view and mean that the fetus becomes an individual 120 days (see post on stem cell research in Iran) into the pregnancy, but this has been discussed in an earlier blog post.

These cultures have very different beliefs, and a compromise between them in the future is highly unlikely. Several attempts on legalizing both research and funding have been made, but have always been stopped. The main argument from the Conservatives has been that this will encourage murder. Bush made a fair attempt in 2001, by suggesting that federal funding should only be permitted on stem cells that had been derived before the date of his speech. From the Bush administrations point of view, this would not encourage murder. This statement was illogical from a scientific point of view, and was rather a political attempt of calming conservatives and scientists.

On March 9 2009 Barack Obama overturned Bush’s ruling, which led to several conservative groups expressing their dissatisfaction. Among them was The National Conference of Catholic Bishops. People still feel very strongly about this case, and would rather use adult/pluripotent stem cells for research than embryonic. There is however not much they can do, since they are not in any strong political position.


Wertz, DC. (2002) Embryo and stem cell research in the United States: history and politics. Gene Therapy 9, pp. 674-678.

Wertz, DC. (2002) Embryo and stem cell research in the USA: a political history. TRENDS in the Molecular Medicine, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 143-146.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2007) U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Retrieved on March 14, 2011, from

Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. (2009) Points to consider: The New NIH Guidelines for embryonic stem cell research. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops.


About Tom Erik

Student of Bionanotechnology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Loves reading, cooking and music.
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