Children who attend Catholic schools in the Madison Catholic Diocese will no longer be taking field trips to the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery because the facility on the UW-Madison campus conducts research using embryonic stem cells.

The diocese announced its decision in a letter Thursday to principals and priests, saying the research runs counter to Catholic teaching on the sacredness of human life.

“Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison may no longer participate in any activities, workshops or field trips at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery,” wrote Michael Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools. “Any plans to do so should be halted immediately, and alternative, morally acceptable means of meeting the educational objectives should be utilized.”

The decision, approved by Bishop Robert Morlino, affects about 7,400 children at 44 schools in 11 counties, Lancaster said. However, only a handful of Catholic schools had been taking students to the facility, he said.

The decision brought a quick rebuke from Peter Hess, a Catholic theologian and director of religious community outreach for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif.

“As an advocate of solid science teaching in Catholic schools, I see it as very problematic and a huge overreach to prohibit students from visiting an entire institution because of one suspect wing of that institution,” said Hess, a member of the International Society of Science and Religion.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery opened in 2010 as a public-private research center. It conducts research across disciplines, focusing on “the interfaces of computation, laboratory science, the humanities and entrepreneurship,” according to its website.

It houses the Morgridge Institute for Research, where renowned researcher James Thomson is director of regenerative biology. Thomson was the first scientist, in 1998, to grow human embryonic stem cells in a lab.

The diocesan investigation was triggered last spring by concerns from parents and priests, Lancaster said. While the research center offers many valuable educational programs that pose no moral or theological issues for Catholics, it also offers a workshop for middle and high school students in which they work with live human stem cells, he said.

“There is the possibility participants in this workshop may handle embryonic stem cells, which would clearly violate Catholic doctrine and teaching,” Lancaster said.

Embryonic stem cells are harvested from human embryos, requiring the destruction of early-stage embryos otherwise discarded at fertility clinics. The Catholic Church considers this the death of a human being and teaches that all human life is sacred and must be protected. The church does not oppose research using adult stem cells, which are derived from adult tissue samples.

Stem cell research is one of 10 general field trip topics offered by the research center, and the hands-on stem cell workshop is one of five options within the stem cell field trip category. Other field trips deal with topics such as how fossils were formed, how DNA works and how ecosystems work together to grow food.

During the last school year, the research center hosted more than 20,000 school-age children, their families and teachers through Town Center, the public educational arm that runs all of the field trips and workshops, said spokeswoman Janet Kelly. Of those, fewer than 200 participated in a hands-on stem cell workshop, she said.

In response to the diocesan announcement, Kelly said in a statement: “Our learning philosophy is non-discriminatory, and we welcome all students. We also respect the decision of any child, parent, care provider, school or school district to determine if the educational programs offered at the Town Center are appropriate for their participation and educational needs.”

Lancaster said that while it would be possible to visit the research center and avoid participation in a particular workshop, patronizing an institution involved in embryonic stem cell research “would cause scandal for participants, the school and the parish.”

In Catholicism, “scandal” refers to “any action, word or behavior that occasions another to commit evil,” said the Rev. Tad Pacholczyk, a Catholic ethicist and director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He supports the diocese’s decision.

“The potential for scandal is significant, partly because earlier trips had already occasioned concerns among some families, and because the Catholic schools have a serious moral duty to contribute to the sound moral formation of their students,” Pacholczyk said. The field trips could “engender confusion” in the minds of students about what constitutes ethically and morally appropriate scientific inquiry, he said.

But Hess, of the National Center for Science Education, questioned what good it does to “boycott an entire institution.”

“My approach would be not to shrink away from controversial issues but to empower students to think critically,” he said. “I want my children exposed to science, and if there’s something the church opposes, you use it as a teachable moment.”

Lancaster, in his letter, took pains to head off criticism the decision is anti-science. He said Catholic clergy and laity have long been known for their contributions to science, mentioning Gregor Mendel. An Augustinian monk, Mendel pioneered the field of genetics.

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