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?

Pikuach nefesh. Preservation of life. Even if you can’t pronounce it, you’ve no doubt heard of it. In the Jewish tradition, it’s the most important obligation of all, overriding almost all other laws.

And saving life, say doctors and scientists, is what stem cell research is all about. Most Jewish thinkers, medical personnel and ethicists agree, saying Jewish tradition allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society.

A debate rages because some abortion opponents, including Pope John Paul II, regard the embryos, which are destroyed after the stem cells are extracted, as human life. Some Jewish medical ethicists, too, are currently engaged in discussion over this use of human embryos. It’s one of the hottest topics in the nation right now as President George W. Bush ponders whether to allow federal funding for stem cells taken from human embryos [his decision was subsequently made on August 2001, as noted above].

Stem cells are special types of cells that have the potential to grow into any cell or tissue in the body, and so can be used to replace cells that are damaged or diseased. Researchers believe the use of stem cells has the potential for curing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, severe burns, and many more illnesses and injuries, literally allowing the body to heal itself. These amazing cells can come from many sources besides embryos, including umbilical cords and bone marrow, tissues and fat from adult humans. But medical researchers overwhemingly report that embryonic cells have the greatest potential for curing disease. Their ability to convert into other types of cells is far more potent than that of adult stem cells.

A recent National Institutes of Health study reported that both embryonic and adult stem cells present immense research opportunities for potential therapy. But, the report notes, embryonic stem cells can proliferate indefinitely, while adult cells cannot.

Controversy arises because some, though by no means all, abortion opponents and members of the “pro-life” movement regard the embryos as nascent human life. Some also make a distinction between using left-over embryos at fertility clinics–which would be destroyed anyway–and using cells from aborted fetuses or creating embryos especially for harvesting stem cells. The NIH study recommends using only discarded embryos from fertility clinics in federally funded research.

The leftover embryos are the result of fertility procedures in which many of a woman’s eggs are fertilized in the hopes of producing a viable pregnancy. Many fertility clinics freeze these “pre-embryos”; others simply discard them. It’s estimated that there are about 100,000 surplus embryos frozen in fertility clinics around the country.

For some traditional Jewish groups, the fact that embryos are destroyed could pose a problem. The question of when life begins also figures into the debate. But most Jewish ethicists and medical and religious personnel contacted for this story agreed that in Jewish tradition, it is permissible to destroy an embryo for the purpose of benefiting other living human beings. In fact, most embraced the concept of stem cell research enthusiastically.

Typical were the comments of Dr. Lee Shulman, the director of reproductive genetics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a professor of ob/gyn and molecular genetics there. Speaking from Washington, D.C., where he was testifying before Congress on genetic testing issues, he said that “as a geneticist, the concept that we would somehow place restraints on (stem cell) research, when it is in its embryonic phase, makes very little sense to me.”

“I don’t know when life begins, but the thought that this (research) is involved with life is a stretch from a Jewish point of view,” he said.

“The explosion of genetic research of all types has been fraught with ethical issues,” Shulman said. “But to stop the research because of these kinds of issues just doesn’t seem smart.”

From a halakhic [Jewish legal] perspective, experts admit it’s difficult to find traditional Jewish sources that address stem cell research directly, says professor Paul Root Wolpe, an ethicist at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead, Jewish ethicists are extrapolating from the Jewish legal tradition and rabbinic commentaries. Many authorities cite the Jewish tradition’s imperative to heal and the concept of pikuach nefesh–the responsibility to save human life–to approve a broad range of medical experimentation.

Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of Chicago’s Orthodox religious court, said that he is not ready to issue an opinion on the matter. He is reading the relevant literature, he said, and will soon meet with an eminent research scientist who also understands the halakhic (Jewish law) ramifications of the procedure.

But Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York and one of the country’s leading medical ethicists, called stem cell research “the hope of mankind.”

“The only hope we have of understanding what’s going on in the whole field of oncology, of cancer work, now resides in the stem cell research,” he said at a recent Washington, D.C. event. He called a Senate bill that would restrict stem cell research “an evil that’s being perpetrated on America.”

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.

The article refers to President George W. Bush’s deliberations about allowing funding for stem cell research. On August 9, 2001, Bush gave his qualified approval for such funding, permitting it for research done on existing stem cell lines, that is, stem cell lines created from embryos that have already been destroyed. Reprinted with permission from The Chicago Jewish News.

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