On Aug. 9, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an executive order severely limiting federal funding for stem cell research. It is almost certain that in one of his first acts as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama will reverse that limiting decree.
Keeping the FaithBush based his decision on religious teachings and what he considers to be the ethical and moral approach to scientific research. Does that mean, however, that President Obama, when he finally does wield his pen to undo what Bush wrought, will be turning his back on religion and veering off the moral and ethical high road?
As readers of this column may recall from a discussion of the topic three years ago and again last June, Judaism’s response is an overwhelming “no way.” Most Jewish authorities agree that stem cell research is halachically permissible and, in fact, is the ethical and moral thing to do given this simple fact: Embryonic stem cells, because they can grow into virtually any kind of cell in the body, have the potential to cure many of the diseases that afflict humanity.
From Judaism’s perspective, as part of God’s creation of the universe, He created embryonic stem cells and gave them their capacity to adapt to any part of the body. To argue that God does not want us to tap into this rich resource to cure some of life’s most persistent ailments is saying something horrible about God – that He enjoys playing dirty tricks on us. Specifically, what those who argue thus are saying is that God created embryonic stem cells and made them a blank slate with the power to become virtually any other kind of cell in the body. He then gave human beings the knowledge to harvest these cells, manipulate them, and transplant them where they would do the most good. Then He sat back and said, “Don’t you dare even try to do that.”
The idea is as perverse as can be.
According to one expert, Moses Tendler, this notion is nothing less than “an evil that’s being perpetrated on America” and a “travesty of justice.” Tendler is a rabbi; in fact, he is on the Talmud faculty at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. However, Tendler is also a professor of biology at Yeshiva College and a world-renowned researcher.
Anyone who knows anything about his halachic rulings would never suggest that he is “on the left” or even in the center. So his position on embryonic stem cell research is one that should carry considerable weight, at least in the Jewish community.
In May 2001, Tendler outlined his position when he appeared as part of a panel on human cloning that was sponsored by the Pew Forum.
Tendler wasted no time defending the right of those who oppose embryonic stem cell research on religious grounds to have such opinions. “[It’s] a religious belief we should respect,” he said. It is not a belief, however, that should “be binding on American democracy.”
After citing God’s enjoinder to humankind in Genesis 1:28 to “master your world,” Tendler added, “That’s part of man’s obligation in this world, to make the world a better place than God left it when He made manâ€¦. Therefore, the fact that something is artificial is not synonymous with bad. On the contrary, artificial may mean man fulfilling his obligations to God.”
“God gave us molecules,” he said; “God gave us atoms. We put them together differently. We are not playing God by doing that. We can’t get along without Him. We can’t make â€¦ anything out of a vacuum. Only God can do that, so we’re always riding on God’s shoulders. We’re not ever in opposition to God. The whole idea of science and religion being in conflict is an oxymoron, for God is the source of all science and God is the source of religion, and God is not schizophrenic. He doesn’t fight with Himself.”
Tendler then turned to the discussion at hand. “We don’t cure disease ourselves,” he said, “but every few generations God allows us to move one veil of nature, and we get a little bit smarter. Right now, stem cell research is the hope of mankind.”
Even the highly problematic cloning is knowledge given to us by God, Tendler argued. If it is used to create more embryonic stem cells, it is a gift from God, not an affront to His dignity.
“Four or five days of growth until the stem cell appears, when the cell has approximately 150 cells, a little blastula, and the stem cells hang like a little chandelier – those stem cells put into a sick person, put into an inoculated egg, four days later have stem cells which are grown in tissue culture, and repair this man’s heart, liver, lungs, etc. Is that abortion? Traditionally an egg and sperm that aren’t lying in transit in a uterus cannot be granted humanhood, and that is the tradition that I believe â€¦ the present interpretation of Jewish law would insist [on]; we are not dealing at all with making a human being. I think four days of an embryo. That’s all I need to cure 10,000 cardiac patients in America. This is the issue at hand.”
To be sure, there are halachic authorities who disagree with Tendler. Some do so because their reading of Jewish law grants a fetus human status much earlier than traditional readings would, and it is forbidden to sacrifice one innocent life in order to save another innocent life.
Others, such as Rabbi David Bleich, professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Yeshiva University, agree with Tendler’s understanding but nevertheless are wary of where this could lead. They fear that doctors will encourage women who are wavering to have an abortion because the children they are not sure they want could save some lives by never being born. That could be the powerful motivator to persuade some women, at least, to indeed have abortions.
That is a possibility and a strong one, at that, so it must be dealt with. It does not change the basic fact, however: God gave us a tool to save lives and is now giving us the knowledge to make use of that tool.
When President Obama takes pen in hand to reverse the Bush decree, there will be those who jeer. Jews, for the most part, will cheer.