Last week, a top Vatican official said that scientists who engage in embryonic stem cell research and politicians who make such research legal will be excommunicated. According to the Telegraph:
"Destroying human embryos is equivalent to an abortion. It is the same thing," said Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
"Excommunication will be applied to the women, doctors and researchers who eliminate embryos [and to the] politicians that approve the law," he said in an interview with Famiglia Christiana, an official Vatican magazine.
Of course, the Cardinal's position is not at all surprising given that church doctrine teaches that embryos are the moral equivalent of people. Now Roman Catholic women who have abortions and the physicians who provide them are automatically excommunicated. The Cardinal's statement does not make it clear whether or not Roman Catholics who avail themselves of embryonic stem cell treatments would be excommunicated, but if stem cell treatments are analogous to abortions, it seems likely that they would be.
So how is the threat of excommunication likely to affect the decisions of American Roman Catholics when it comes time to decide to use or forego new therapies based on embryonic stem cells? After all, American Roman Catholics already widely ignore the church's teaching on artificial contraception. According to one 2004 survey, "sexually active Catholic women above the age of 18 are just as likely (97%) to have used some form of contraception banned by the Catholic church as women in the general population (97%)."
Even the church's teachings on abortion are ignored by most American Roman Catholics. A recent survey by the Pew Foundation found that a majority of American Roman Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal in many circumstances (17 percent) or legal and completely up to a woman to decide (35 percent). Those figures were no different from the whole sample of Americans surveyed. Finally, another recent report found, "forty-three percent of women obtaining abortions identify themselves as Protestant, and 27% as Catholic."
Some treatments using embryonic stem cells could be available in as little as two years. Given the data cited above, my bet is that the threat of excommunication will have very little effect on the decisions of American Roman Catholics when it comes to deciding between fidelity to church doctrine and the lives and health of themselves and their families.