Stem cell research and Jewish law

Stem cell research and Jewish law

Science" is a campaign issue in ‘008. That is because the presumptive Democratic nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, has made reversing what he calls the "anti-science" stance of the Bush administration a cornerstone of his campaign.

Inevitably, discussion of "science" and "anti-science" leads to whether federal funds should be used to encourage embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. The Bush administration opposes this, but Obama supports it. Ironically, so does his presumptive opponent, Sen. John McCain, who only eight years ago was firmly on the Bush side of the debate but was helped to see the light by Nancy Reagan and some "very smart people," as he once told a television interviewer.

To be sure, the issues involved are complex. The two main questions are:

1. Is it moral and ethical to extract stem cells from unused human embryos in order to use them in research that could lead to the saving of lives in the future, particularly in cases of people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and diabetes?

‘. Is it permissible to clone embryos in order to increase the availability of the stem cells needed to conduct such research?

Various Christian groups, from the Catholics to the evangelicals, say no to both questions.

Most Jewish legal authorities support embryonic stem cell research, including on the Orthodox right. The main dissenting voice, ironically, comes from the Reform movement. The only real debate is whether cloning embryos for ESC research is permissible.

First, a couple of halachic principles need to be explained. One is the concept of choleh l’faneinu (literally, the ill person is before us). Jewish law prohibits deriving any benefit from a corpse short of the immediate saving of another life. Obviously, this does not apply to ESC research. No one can seriously suggest that someone currently ill will derive any immediate life-saving benefit from research that remains in its infancy.

On the other hand, choleh l’faneinu has undergone considerable expansion since it was first conceived by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau nearly ’30 years ago. Rather than an actual beneficiary, authorities today seek to create a statistical choleh l’faneinu in deciding on such matters as, say, organ transplantation. Thus, in an ESC context, the issue is whether any of the current victims of Parkinson’s Disease or diabetes, say, will be alive when the research hopefully bears fruit. Since that is a virtual certainty, choleh l’faneinu, the ill person is before us.

The other issue is how we define piku’ach nefesh, regard for human life, the principle of Jewish law that overrides nearly all the other laws. Does the threat have to be both real and immediate? The sages of blessed memory offered a simple and direct answer: No. The potential for danger is sufficient for piku’ach nefesh to kick in (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 84b-85b).

The lives of victims of Parkinson’s Disease or diabetes are at actual risk. If they are truly "the ill person before us," as many current interpretations of halachah would have it, then anything it takes to save their lives is halachically sound.

"In stem cell research and therapy, the moral obligation [is] to save human life, the paramount ethical principle in biblical law," according to Rabbi Moses Tendler in testimony he gave to a federal commission in 1999. Rabbi Tendler, very much to the right of the Orthodox center and also one of the nation’s most respected biologists and bioethicists, added, "Mastery of nature for the benefit of those suffering from vital organ failure is an obligation [derived from Genesis 1:’8]. Human embryonic stem cell research holds that promise."

Tendler would extend this to cloning, as well. It is here, however, where there exists serious debate among halachists.

Sephardic authorities in Israel agree that cloning embryos for research purposes is permissible. They see this as an extension of the permission they give to performing autopsies for research purposes. Most often cited regarding autopsies is the opinion of the late Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Chai Ouziel, who permitted them because "there is a possibility of thereby saving life." (See his responsa, Mishpetei Uziel, 1:’8 and ‘9.)

Many, but not all, Ashkenazic Israeli authorities oppose cloning embryos (although many do support ESC research). This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where there appears to be majority support even for cloning among the Ashkenazic Orthodox rabbinate.

Ironically, as mentioned earlier, a Reform responsum on the subject agrees with the Israeli rabbis regarding cloning embryos for research. According to the responsum, issued by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in ‘001 (5761.7), "It is not permissible to create embryonic human life for the purpose of destroying it in medical experimentation."

The CCAR responsum, however, goes much further. It disapproves of ESC research in general. "Let us not mince words," it states. "Although the fertilized egg may be called an ’embryo,’ a ‘zygote,’ or a ‘blastocyst,’ these labels can mask the fact that we have here a human being, an organism that contains all the genetic material that would, under the proper conditions, develop into a full legal person…. The embryo may not have attained the status of a nefesh, a legal person, a member of the human community, and its unwarranted killing may not be defined as ‘murder.’ It is, however, a human being, and by that token it partakes of the sanctity of all human life."

The responsum is also not impressed by the piku’ach nefesh argument.

"This argument does have persuasive force, but that force lies in the sheer power of calculation," it says. "It depends upon the assignment of relative values to the human organism at different stages of its development: [T]he nefesh receives a higher score than the not-yet-nefesh….This mathematical approach is elegant in its simplicity, but … it ignores some vital moral issues raised by the destruction of embryonic human life.…[E]ven there, in the microscopic fertilized egg, lies the supreme potential for humanity."

The Reform position aside, the majority still favor ESC research, including, when necessary, the cloning of embryos to harvest their stem cells. That may change, however, because of new research suggesting that adult stem cells scraped off of human skin can be "reprogrammed" to work just like the embryonic ones. To date, the new research remains highly speculative, but the halachic wheels are turning nonetheless.