This week the Senate passed a landmark bill, HR 810, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would allow federal funding for stem cell research using surplus embryos from reproductive clinics. Three prominent Jewish organizations spanning the religious spectrum the Orthodox Union, Hadassah, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued statements in strong support of the legislation.
HR 810 originated and was passed by the House of Representatives in the spring of ‘005. Although President Bush vetoed the bill and neither the House nor the Senate appears to have enough votes to override the veto, it still remains a key piece of legislation, as members of Congress are rallying around the issue as a matter of principle and for political reasons. Recent polls have indicated that more than 70 percent of Americans support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
"HR 810 … is worthy of support because it insists that publicly funded stem cell research be conducted on cells derived from embryos donated to IVF clinics … which would otherwise be likely to be destroyed," explains a letter sent to U.S. senators by Rabbi T. Hersh Weinreb and Nathan J. Diament on behalf of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. "Judaism does not accord embryonic cells outside of the womb the full status of humanhood and its attendant protections. The traditional Jewish perspective thus emphasizes that the potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life [emphasis theirs]. Thus, stem cell research if pursued within a regime of ethical rules and oversight is worthy of public support and funding."
A second major Orthodox rabbinic group, the Rabbinical Council of America, has in the past joined with the UOJCA in supporting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In ‘004 the UOJCA and RCA issued a joint statement concluding that "if cloning technology research advances our ability to heal humans with greater success, it ought to be pursued since it does not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process."
June Walker, national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, called on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to "do all he can to ensure passage of HR 810."
Frist visited Hadassah Medical Center in May ‘005 and toured the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Center at the Jerusalem hospital. The Hadassah statement addressed to Frist urges, "We know that you, as a doctor, do not wish to see suffering and we thank you for all you’ve done so far in this regard…. By passing this legislation, the Senate will definitively demonstrate that stem cell research is not an issue that divides Americans by political party or faith…. It is immoral for our families, neighbors, and friends to suffer while Washington politics hold hostage treatments within our scientific grasp. A presidential veto would not reflect the American people’s political will."
A letter to senators released by the Union of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center also strongly supports passage of HR 810.
"Today, American medicine stands on the brink of being able to drastically improve the lives and futures of as many as 100 million Americans who currently suffer from debilitating diseases and conditions," Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center, wrote to senators. The center, located in Washington, D.C., articulated the URJ’s stance. The letter continued: "Medical advances that could be achieved through embryonic stem cell research are simply too close at hand to let this opportunity slip through our fingertips."
The letter also took a significant step beyond endorsing the use of surplus embryos. It supported the idea that "creation of stem cells through therapeutic cloning is the best way to advance this crucial research."
Therapeutic cloning is more controversial, as it involves the production of cloned human embryos (which can be engineered to be genetically identical to the patient), rather than just the use of leftover embryos from reproductive clinics. The cloned human embryos can then, in turn, be used to generate stem cells and, ultimately, tissues to treat human disease.
Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the RAC, said in an interview that the letter indicated support for therapeutic cloning for the production of stem cells, as opposed to reproductive cloning (leading to the production of cloned human beings).
Weinstein said that a resolution was passed overwhelmingly at the URJ’s ‘003 biennial meeting in support of stem cell research.
"Once the URJ passes a resolution we convey these sentiments to members of Congress," she explained. The ‘003 resolution states its support of "Research using both adult and embryonic stem cells, in addition to the existing lines currently approved for funding by the United States and Canadian governments…. Research using somatic gene therapy…. Research using somatic cell nuclear transfer technology for therapeutic cloning; and Government funding for all such research."
Rabbi David Feldman, rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and dean of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics, addressed the topic of embryonic stem cells in his recently published book "Where There’s Life There’s Life."
"Rabbinic opinion is virtually unanimous," Feldman wrote, "that human status cannot be ascribed to pre- implantation embryos…. A fetus, as precious as it is, is only potential in its status … but the earlier embryo has even less, it has only the pre-potential status of individual zygotes, of sperm and ovum. They, too, are to be protected and treasured but where they failed to impregnate they ought certainly to be used for healing."
Regarding embryonic stem cell research, he concluded, "Once the determination is clear that human life is not destroyed by the use of embryonic stem cells, then their vast therapeutic potential demands that they be used for healing and relief."Dr. Miryam Z.Wahrman is a professor of biology and director of general education at William Paterson University of New Jersey in Wayne. Her book "Brave New Judaism" (University Press of New England/Brandeis University Press) addresses issues of bioethics and Jewish law as they relate to biotechnology and modern biomedical science.