The Mormon Stem-Cell Choir

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Aug. 3 2001 3:00 AM

The Mormon Stem-Cell Choir

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Two weeks ago, Senate supporters of human embryonic stem-cell research summoned four of their colleagues to testify at a hearing. Of the four senators selected, one was an opponent of ESCR; another was the sponsor of a compromise bill. The other two, lavishly praised for their advocacy of ESCR, were Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. Why Hatch and Smith? The obvious reason is that they, unlike the colleagues who praised them, are pro-life on abortion, thereby lending an air of consensus to ESCR. But beneath that answer lies another. Both men were introduced as graduates of Brigham Young University. They're Mormons.

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While pundits chatter on about the role of Catholic leaders in the stem-cell debate, the influence of Mormons—members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—goes almost unnoticed. Hatch and Smith have become the leaders of a movement within the Republican Party to urge President Bush to fund embryonic stem-cell research. All five Mormon senators—the others are Sens. Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and Harry Reid, D-Nev.—have come out for such funding They have helped move the debate away from right-to-life absolutism without sacrificing pro-life theology. The LDS Church, not the Vatican, is playing the pivotal role in the struggle over stem cells.

Mormons have long been part of the conservative coalition on moral issues. They resisted the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and early 1980s. They have staunchly opposed pornography and abortion on demand. But stem-cell research has splintered that coalition, separating Mormons from conservative Catholics. In an audience last week with Bush, Pope John Paul II restated the Catholic Church's opposition to abortion and "related evils" such as euthanasia, infanticide, and the destruction of human embryos through stem-cell research. That statement drew upon the pope's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, and his 1987 encyclical, Donum Vitae (Gift of Life): Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation. Both documents elaborate on the Catholic position that life begins at conception, equating abortion and stem-cell research with murder.

Leaders of the LDS Church have been far more circumspect about both subjects. The church released a statement of neutrality on stem-cell research in July, but it went on to say that the practice "merits cautious scrutiny. The proclaimed potential to provide cures or treatments for many serious diseases needs careful and continuing study by conscientious, qualified investigators. As with any emerging new technology, there are concerns that must be addressed. Scientific and religious viewpoints both demand that strict moral and ethical guidelines be followed."

What the LDS Church didn't issue—and what its statements on abortion similarly avoid—is any statement about when life begins, and hence whether embryos constitute human life. Rather than referring to the Biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill," the church's 1991 statement on abortion cited a scripture from The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations received by Joseph Smith, whom the church regards as its first prophet. The scripture reads, "Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it." The phrase "like unto it" suggests that while most abortions are sinful, they are not quite the same as murder.

Why is the Mormon stance more flexible than the Catholic stance? For Catholics, life begins at conception. To illustrate this point, Evangelium Vitae refers to Mary carrying Jesus in her womb. But Mormon doctrine holds that each person lived as a spirit child of God prior to being born and receiving a physical body on Earth. From this point of view, it makes no sense to say that life begins at conception. Instead, Mormons would say that life on earth begins when the spirit and body are united.

In his testimony, Sen. Smith made this very point. Without calling attention to his Mormon beliefs, he cited Genesis 2:7, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Smith went on to explain, "This allegory of creation describes a two-step process to life, one of the flesh, the other of the spirit." He compared stem cells to "the dust of the earth —they are essential to life, but standing alone, will never constitute life." As Smith portrayed it, the onset of life—the union of spirit and body—takes place when the embryo is implanted in a womb.

Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, later described Smith's theory as "amateur theology." But if Doerflinger didn't know that he was implicitly dismissing the theology of the nation's fifth-largest denomination, the amateurism was his own. Many Mormons would buttress Smith's reading of Genesis by pointing to two other written accounts of the creation—both in the Pearl of Great Price, another collection of scriptures brought forth by Joseph Smith—which emphasize the same two-step process of spiritual and physical creation.

You don't have to believe in this scripture or theology to appreciate the Mormon view of stem cells and the crucial role it plays in the current debate. Most supporters of ESCR in the Senate are pro-choice Democrats. Their stance on ESCR carries no great weight with, and offers no defensible rationale to, Bush or pro-life Republicans in Congress. The stem-cell movement needs spokesmen who are morally conservative, pro-life on abortion, and pro-ESCR based on a coherent philosophy that wasn't invented for the occasion. The Mormon philosophy, which holds that fetal abortion is too much like killing but that unimplanted blastocysts haven't yet been animated by the human spirit, fits the bill. That's why Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a Jewish, pro-choice ESCR advocate, goes around quoting Smith on stem cells. It's also why Hatch has taken the lead in lobbying Bush.

Can Mormons play a similar role on other issues? Not necessarily. Sometimes Mormon doctrine is more rigid than Catholic doctrine. Both churches, for example, condemn homosexual acts while urging compassion toward individuals who engage in them. But the churches differ in their willingness to acknowledge homosexuality as a permanent condition. "The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible," declares the Catholic catechism. Statements by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley speak more skeptically of those "who profess homosexual tendencies" or "who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians."

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