By Simon Caldwell
A DECISION to allow the federal funding of destructive experiments on human embryos has led to the first major clash between America's Catholic bishops and the country's new President.
They criticised the move by President George W Bush to permit funding of stem cell research on embryos surplus to in vitro fertilisation processes.
The bishops have been courted by the Republican President both before and after his election this year and had found common ground on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, human cloning and asylum seekers.
They have always been at odds over the death penalty because Mr Bush has signed more execution warrants while Governor of Texas than any of his predecessors, and has expressed no desire to change the law.
Last week's decision signalled the first serious rift between the Church and the President over the rights of the unborn child.
Mr Bush announced his decision on national television, where he also restated his opposition to any form of human cloning and acknowledged the failure of years of research on embryos to deliver cures for any illnesses.
"As a result of private research, more than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist," said Mr Bush.
"I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made."
The President said he would also provide "aggressive" funding of research into stem cells that did not involve the destruction of human life, adding: "I have made this decision with great care and I pray that it is the right one."
He failed to please either those who favoured minimum restrictions and maximum funding and those who were opposed to any experimentation on human beings.
"The trade-off he has announced is morally unacceptable," said Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States' Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenceless human beings for the possible benefit to others.
"However such a decision is hedged about with qualifications, it allows our nation's research enterprise to cultivate a disrespect for human life. We hope and pray that President Bush will return to a principled stand against treating some human lives as nothing more than objects to be manipulated and destroyed for research purposes."
Peter Garrett, research director of Life, said the decision would at least "encourage scientists to concentrate on research using adult stem cells — which poses no ethical objections — and is already producing very promising results".
He said: "There is no need to cannibalise human embryos, whether cloned or not."
Editorial Comment — p7