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Stem Cells, God and Politics

6/19/2007 - 6:00 AM PST

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Australian Laws Raise Polemics


By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JUNE 19, 2007 (Zenit) - Church-state boundaries came under close scrutiny in Australia recently, with a no-holds barred debate over stem cell legislation. At the end of May the ruling Labor Party in the state of New South Wales announced legislation to overturn a previous ban on the cloning of embryonic stem cells for medical research.

"I'm doing this to allow New South Wales researchers to work on new therapies that will help us better understand human diseases and may provide the treatments and therapies for many of the illnesses currently considered untreatable," announced the state's premier, Morris Iemma, according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper May 30.

The door to embryo stem cell research in Australia was opened when federal Parliament gave its approval late last year. The new law comes into effect this month. The legislation proposed in New South Wales was eventually approved by the state's lower house June 7, although it must still pass the upper house.

It met, however, with strong opposition from both the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, the state capital, acknowledged that there is a real need to find cures for disease and genetic problems. He appealed, however, for greater reflection on the moral issues involved.

In a statement issued June 4 on behalf of the 10 bishops from the state's dioceses, Cardinal Pell also protested at the way the proposal was being rushed through Parliament in the space of only a week.

The human embryo, the statement continued, "has intrinsic human dignity and should be afforded that most basic of human rights -- the right to live, to grow, to prosper."

Cardinal Pell finished by calling upon Catholic, and indeed all Christian politicians, not to vote in favor of such "immoral legislation."

Catholic politicians

Media attention in the following days largely tended to ignore Cardinal Pell's arguments on the ethical objections to embryonic stem cell research, preferring to concentrate on his appeal to Catholic politicians.

Typical of this was a June 6 report in the Sydney Morning Herald titled: "Catholic members of Parliament to defy Pell over bill." The article went on to describe how Premier Iemma and his deputy, John Watkins, both Catholics, were prepared to "defy" the Church.

An agency report posted the same day on the newspaper's Web page reported further comments by Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees, who demanded that Sydney's archbishop apologize to Catholic members of Parliament, or risk being considered as bad as radical Muslim leaders.

The article also reported comments by Iemma that he didn't think his local parish priest would be denying him communion, in spite of his support for the bill.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, also a Catholic, spoke out in support of Cardinal Pell, reported the Daily Telegraph on June 6. "Cardinal Pell is entitled to say his piece. He is the leader of
the Catholic church here in Australia," he said.

In a radio interview, Australian Prime Minister John Howard also defended the cardinal. "In the end, Church leaders, if they believe something ... are entitled to put their view," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on July 7.

An editorial June 7 in the national daily The Australian spoke out in favor of Cardinal Pell. He was only doing his job, the paper argued. "As cardinal, it is his responsibility to explain and uphold Catholic principles, to remind Australian Catholics of the rules that apply to their lives, if lived as Catholics."

West Australia

Matters became more heated, however, due to parallel legislation introduced in another state, West Australia. Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth, the state's capital, opposed the bill to allow research on embryos. "The end does not justify the means," he said, according to a report posted on the ninemsn.com.au Web site April 19.

Just as matters reached a head in Sydney, Fred Riebeling, speaker of West Australia's Legislative Assembly, announced June 7 that Archbishop Hickey would be investigated by the state parliamentary privileges committee, reported the West Australia newspaper.

The day before, Perth's archbishop said Catholics who "voted for the cloning of embryos destined for destruction" should not go to Communion and could be excommunicated.

A report the next day in the Australian newspaper quoted a spokesman for Archbishop Hickey as saying that there had not been any threat. Politicians, the spokesman said, had been "reminded" that the cloning of embryos for experimentation and destruction was not consistent with Church teachings.

In the end, Riebeling settled for tabling in parliament a ...

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