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Jewish Journal

Jewish Law Favors Stem Cell Research

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

August 5, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Even as Ron Reagan makes a case for stem cell research at the Democratic National Convention, Californians may take matters into their own hands. In November, the state ballot will include a 10-year bond issue, which would generate $3 billion for stem cell research. If it passes, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative would make the Golden State the golden goose of publicly funded stem cell research, generating approximately $295 million annually for stem cell research. This figure dwarfs by 10 times the $24.8 million spent by the federal government on human embryonic stem cell research last fiscal year.

While voters may still be deliberating the merits of stem cell research, authorities of halacha (Jewish law) are in favor of the technology, within certain limits. While not necessarily agreeing on their rationale, the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements have all released statements endorsing stem cell research, and have made their positions known to President Bush.

If the major denominations within Judaism can agree on this issue, why are others around the nation up in arms? Because stem cell research raises questions about how life is defined and when it begins. Although stem cells are found in the body at all stages of development, the ones that seem to be most promising for research purposes are those extracted from embryos (fertilized egg cells) only a few days old. Most embryonic stem cell research is performed on excess embryos created in Petri dishes for couples undergoing in-vitro fertilization. These preimplanted embryos [also referred to as pre-embryos] would otherwise remain frozen or be discarded.

In the laboratory, embryonic stem cells are able to replicate rapidly to create a "line" of cells uniquely capable of developing into any kind of cell in the human body. These cells provide enormous potential for treating and possibly curing a host of diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease and cancer. The catch: extracting the stem cells destroys the embryo.

"While the saving of life is paramount in the rabbinic legal code, and most laws can be violated to achieve this goal, the prohibition of homicide is one notable exception," wrote Rabbi Edward Reichman, an assistant professor and physician at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine of Yeshiva University, in The Forward. "The crucial question then is this: Is the fertilized egg considered human life, such that destroying it in order to harvest its stem cells is tantamount to homicide?"

Reichman said that according to most contemporary rabbinic authorities, although one may violate the Sabbath in order to save a fetus in-utero, one may not violate the Sabbath to preserve a pre-embryo. "And since, as the Sabbath test shows, the pre-embryo does not have the status of even potential life, it may be concluded that its use for medical research, with the potential to aid in the cure of widespread human suffering, is not only permitted but laudatory," he writes. "One should treat the pre-embryo with respect, and not wantonly destroy it. It is human tissue. But it is not human life."

"The farther back you go in pregnancy, the lower the [legal] status of the fetus," notes Rabbi Mark E. Washofsky, professor of rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the chair of the committee that composed the Reform Movement's Responsum on Human Stem Cell Research. At the same time, he says, "There is a moral issue here: The treatment of a human organism at this earliest stage requires at least some consideration on our part, otherwise you can't call the human organism sacred in some meaningful way."

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, says that in Jewish tradition, embryos less than 40 days old are considered as "mere water," and do not have full status as a human life. Further, the cluster of cells from which stem cells are extracted cannot be considered a human being because these cells are incapable of developing outside the womb.

Dorff, who wrote the Conservative Movement's Responsum on stem cell research, said the potential for saving lives takes precedence over a cluster of cells that have no potential to develop into a person.

"While we still have respect for the materials out of which life may ultimately come, the question is: Respect for what purpose? And how do you express that respect? Not at the cost of saving people's lives," he said

To those who believe endeavors such as stem cell research cross the line into God's realm, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish Law at Loyola Law School, disagrees.

"The idea that we have no right tinkering with God's work is fundamentally anti-Jewish," said Adlerstein, the Orthodox rabbi. "There are things that God fully expects mankind to do. One of those things is to use the wisdom and the tools that he gave us to expand the far reaches of the universe."

He said that finding the answers to previously undiscovered questions such as how life originates "doesn't diminish our belief in God," he says. "On the contrary, it increases it."

Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Center for Medical Ethics at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, expressed a similar sentiment in correspondence with Dorff. He wrote: "These wondrous genetic discoveries can strengthen one's faith in the Creator of the world because where there are laws of nature, there is a Creator. It is a confirmation of the biblical verse (Psalms 104:24) "How abundant are your works, O Lord, with wisdom you made them all."

In the case of stem cell research, scientists hope to learn how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells. This knowledge holds potential for repairing or replacing damaged organs, as well as for testing safety and effectiveness of new drugs without harm to human subjects. Preliminary research in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy cells transplanted into a diseased heart can regenerate heart tissue. Other studies are exploring whether human embryonic stem cells can form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in therapy for diabetics.

"I think stem cell research is the most promising line of medical research since antibiotics," Dorff said.

In 2001, Bush ordered that the federal government fund only embryonic stem cell research performed on the limited number of existing stem cell lines, precluding federal funding for research involving production of new stem cells or research on those produced overseas. (Private research on embryonic stem cells is not presently affected.) Under pressure from critics, on July 14, the National Institutes of Health announced that it would create a bank to distribute existing stem cells, but critics say this doesn't go far enough.

"The government should not only allow stem cell research, they should fund it generously," Dorff said.

But while Jewish leaders endorse federal funding for stem cell research, they also urge that it be performed with stringent guidelines and controls, and for therapeutic purposes only. Selecting traits to create "designer babies," for example, would be unacceptable.

"For every step God gives us of greater control over the physical parts of man, we had better be sure we have a firmer handle on the nonphysical part of man -- on the neshama -- on the soul," Adlerstein said. "God gave man intelligence to be able to create things."

At the same time, as "moral gatekeepers, Jews are there to remind the world that not every combination that you can produce should be produced," he added.

Save the Date: Rabbi Elliot Dorff will be the keynote speaker at "A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research," a forum hosted by Temple Beth Am on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7:30 pm.

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