updated 1/30/2004 6:15:28 PM ET 2004-01-30T23:15:28

Researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center, a Catholic institution, are using cells derived from aborted fetuses in medical research.

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Catholic doctrine opposes abortion, but the university decided to let researchers who had been using the cells continue their work into treatments for such illnesses as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and cancer.

The medical center said in a statement that the researchers did not know the origins of the cell lines, which are 25 to 40 years old. Of the 18 researchers using the cell lines, 14 needed to continue using them in their research, it said. Four others were able to use alternative lines.

The Rev. Kevin T. Fitzgerald, a university bioethicist and a research associate professor in the oncology department, said that “while using such cell lines would not be our preference,” the Catholic Church’s guidelines on research and health care and widely accepted theology allowed the research to continue.

Under those guidelines, the cell lines can be used because the research could lead to lifesaving cures, because the pregnancies were not ended to get the cell lines and because “the connection to abortion was distant and remote enough so as to not encourage or contribute to abortion in any way,” the university said.

The issue was first brought to the university’s attention by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, after he received a complaint from a Florida-based anti-abortion group.

Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said Georgetown had acted properly.

“Georgetown reviewed the concerns the cardinal raised, and we’re comfortable, and the cardinal’s, comfortable with their response,” Gibbs said. “A number of ethicists have reviewed it to ensure it’s consistent with Catholic teaching.”

Georgetown’s use of cell lines from aborted fetuses was first reported by The Washington Post.

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