"When does life begin?" is not your standard political question, but it's forcing the debate behind one of the hottest topics in Washington -- stem cell research.
As President Bush ponders whether to allow federal funding for research using stem cells from discarded human embryos, Jewish ethicists and groups are debating the finer moral points of the issue.
Like the president, some groups are still delaying a formal position, but most ethicists agree that Jewish tradition allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society.
Admittedly, it's difficult to find traditional Jewish sources that address stem cell research directly, says Prof. 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, which overrides almost all other laws -- to approve a broad range of medical experimentation.
A stem cell is a special kind of cell that has a unique capacity to renew itself and to develop into specialized cell types.
Researchers use stem cells to replace cells that are damaged or diseased. Many believe stem cell research can lead to cures for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and more.
Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America is in favor of stem cell research, as is the National Council of Jewish Women. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs has yet to take a formal stand on the issue.
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 (NIH) state that federal funding should go only for research on frozen embryos that are slated to be discarded.
Early this year, Bush asked the Department of Health and Human Services to review stem cell research.
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.
A just-released NIH report found that both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells "present immense research opportunities for potential therapy."
But while embryonic stem cells can proliferate indefinitely, adult stem cells cannot.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, 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 event in Washington, D.C.
Tendler criticized a Senate bill that would stop the possibility of stem cell research. "That I believe to be an evil that's being perpetrated on America," he said.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America do not have formal positions on the issue. David Zwiebel, the executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel, suggested there would not be an ethical problem with using those embryos slated to be discarded, but was unsure whether the group wanted to weigh in on a policy level about use of government funds for the research.
The Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations sent letters last week to Bush and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in favor of "carefully regulated" federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Quoting Deuteronomy, the letter noted that Jewish tradition says that while only God can create life, God has charged humans with doing everything possible to preserve it.
"I have put before you this day life and death. Choose life, that you and your children may live," the letter said.
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