Jewish Views on Stem Cell Research

The stem cells most likely to be of scientific value come from discarded embryos. Is it ethical to use these?

Print this page Print this page

Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America is in favor of stem cell research, as is the National Council of Jewish Women.

Jewish tradition places minimal life value in early-stage embryos outside the womb, since the Talmud defines any embryo up to 40 days old "as if it were mere fluid." Forty days roughly corresponds to the onset of "quickening," the first noticeable movement of a fetus in a womb. In addition, the location of an embryo--that is, whether it is inside a woman's uterus or in a lab--also makes a difference. Embryos that remain outside the womb have no chance to become children, and therefore it is a "mitzvah" to use those embryos for research, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "It's not only permitted, there is a Jewish mandate to do so," Dorff said.

Others are less certain.

"There's potential life here, and we need to respect that and be cautious," said Rabbi Aaron Mackler, professor of theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Mackler, who supports stem cell research, notes that using embryos taken from fertility clinics makes the case for research easier, because those embryos already have been created for the purposes of in-vitro fertilization. Dorff, who wrote a book on Jewish medical ethics, said creating an embryo specifically to be a source of stem cells is permissible, but less morally justifiable.

Current recommendations of the National Institutes of Health state that federal funding should go only for research on frozen embryos that are slated to be discarded. Government oversight of stem cell research could result in better research and quicker results, which would bolster the ethical argument for proceeding with federal funding, according to Ruth Macklin, professor of bioethics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Professor David Bleich, professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Yeshiva University, said that from the vantage point of Jewish law, the issue is very complicated. He was a member of the first NIH panel on fetal tissue research and has published articles on both subjects. He said it is important to remember that the present debate is not over stem cell research per se but over government funding of the research. "There is a world of difference," he said. Bleich said he would be opposed to government funding for stem cells derived from aborted fetuses (which is not at issue in the present debate over federal funding) because it could cause women who were vacillating to choose abortion.

"When you have government funding, and you have people talking to the mother about the fact that her baby could help humanity, that does become a motivating force (in causing her to have an abortion)," he said. He added that he recommended against fetal tissue research for this reason.

Bleich suggested a compromise that some would find less objectionable: Use stem cell "lines" that have already been developed through private funding. These "starter" cells can continue reproducing indefinitely, somewhat like sourdough starter, he said. Although not enough of these lines exist to satisfy research requirements, he said, using them might represent an answer for those who are opposed to government funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Pauline D. Yearwood

Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is the managing editor of The Chicago Jewish News.