A few years ago, in an article in the The Times of London newspaper, the author, Michael Gove, made the following statement: “Embryonic stem-cell experimentation involves not just the destruction of human life but the creation of life with the specific intent to destroy it.”
It is important to understand that, from a Jewish perspective, this statement contains two inaccuracies.
First, while stem-cell experimentation could involve the creation of embryos with the express purpose of destroying them, this is not the only means available for obtaining embryos. As is well known, I.V.F. has historically yielded many embryos that will never actually be implanted. These “excess” embryos may either be stored indefinitely, donated, discarded, or used for research. It is plain, though, that these embryos were created with the express purpose that they should become life, not in order that they should be destroyed. Nevertheless, almost none of these “excess” embryos will ever embark upon the path towards birth.
The majority of Jewish authorities agree that such embryos, created in hope, may be used for experimentation in order to provide anticipated cures, rather than allowing them to be dispensed with or to deteriorate.
Second, Michael Gove holds that embryonic experimentation represents the destruction of human life. To be sure, viewed through the lens of Jewish law, even the embryo outside the womb is human life. Gove, however, gives the impression that embryonic human life has equivalent standing to born human life.
Judaism perceives this matter differently. While the embryo’s standing as life makes it undeniably precious, it lacks a vital ingredient that distinguishes its status from ours: potential. Left outside the womb, there is not the slightest hope that it will become anything more than the embryonic life it currently represents. Conversely, you and I are on an unstoppable trajectory of growing and decaying that is a hallmark of later fetal and born human life.
This distinction is critical. If implantation of the embryo is not contemplated, embryonic human life is static. All later human life is dynamic. This lack of potential for development puts embryonic human life in a separate category. It is life without a future, without any possibility of becoming.
In his article, Michael Gove objects to the aspiration to eliminate “all manner of infirmities and imperfections” in the pursuit of “superior models of man.” So does Judaism. But Jewish law does not object to healing illness and to reversing debilitating conditions. If embryonic stem-cell research offers real possibilities for future cures then, from a Jewish point of view, it may be pursued with caution, humility, and strict supervision. This is not the objectification of human life; rather, it is the acknowledgement that those embryos which have already been brought into existence need not simply languish and expire, but might make a contribution to the well-being of humanity.
Thus, there is broad halakhic (Jewish legal) agreement that stem cell research is permitted on “excess” embryos. Most (but not all) authorities would forbid the creation of embryos with the express purpose of killing them in the pursuit of stem cell research.
The controversy over stem cell research is focused specifically on the use of stem cells taken from embryos. In the first 4 – 5 days after fertilization, the early-stage embryo (or blastocyst) is comprised of about 150 cells, within which there is a region called the Inner Cell Mass containing the stem cells. In the normal course of gestation, these cells will divide and split off from one another to become every cell in the human body, forming the various organs and tissues. Because the early stem cells have the ability to become any one of the hundreds of different kinds of human cells, scientists are working on research using these cells with the aim of creating therapies to treat a variety of diseases. For instance, it may be possible one day to produce cardiac tissue to repair a heart damaged in a heart attack, nerve tissue to repair spinal cord injuries and cell therapies to treat people suffering from Alzheimer’s or ALS.
The controversy arises for some people because, in the course of harvesting these cells, the embryo is destroyed. For Catholics and others who assert that human life begins at the moment sperm fertilizes an egg, stem cell harvesting is no different than killing a human being. This concern, however, ignores the fact that in the normal course of human reproduction, approximately 80% of fertilized eggs fail to implant in the uterus wall and are expelled in the normal course of a woman’s menstrual cycle, often unbeknownst to her. The embryos we are talking about here are not however taken from a woman’s womb.
The first thing to understand from a Jewish medical ethics perspective is thatthe stem cells we are discussing here are taken from embryos that were created in the course of in vitro fertilization treatment for couples who have trouble conceiving. Typically, a couple will have several embryos frozen because not all of them turn out to be viable for implantation. After the couple has made use of the embryos they want in order to have children, typically the remaining embryos are discarded. However, if a couple were to donate the embryos for medical research, the stem cells can be harvested.
According to traditional Jewish law (halachah) the embryo in these early stages (in its first 40 days) is considered of a different status than even a fetus (see for instance BT Nidda 30a). And while Judaism has a lot to say about abortion (which is permitted under certain circumstance), stem cell harvesting is not abortion because the embryos we are dealing with are frozen in a lab and will be discarded anyway.
The paradigm in this debate for us as Jews should be the concept of pikuah nefesh – the value of saving a human life. Whatever discomfort we might have with the idea of destroying embryos is far outweighed by the moral imperative to alleviate human suffering through the application of medical knowledge. Stem cell research holds out great promise for curing or treating a host of diseases and for that reason is not only permitted, but an ethical imperative.
Reform Movement passes a resolution on Stem Cell Research in 2003. I share with you what was presented and approved in 2003. This is the most precise view of the Union For Reform Judaism. This has supported actions taken and comments made by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism in statements made on issues that are voted on in our government.
67th General Assembly
RESOLUTION ON STEM CELL RESEARCH
Jewish tradition teaches us that preserving life and promoting health are among the most precious of values. These values have informed our affirmative commitment to medical science throughout the ages. Judaism has always encouraged scientific and medical advances. As Nachmanides taught, the practice of healing is not merely a profession, it is a mitzvah, a righteous obligation. A recent CCAR responsum applies this principle to human stem cell research: "If we define the administration of lifesaving medical therapy as pikuach nefesh, we should not forget that physicians could not save lives were it not for the extensive scientific research upon which our contemporary practice of medicine is based. Since research into human stem cells partakes of the mitzvah, of healing, surely our society ought to support it" (CCAR Responsum 5761.7, Human Stem Cell Research, Rabbi Mark Washofsky).
Continuing developments in biological science have opened the door to life-enhancing and life-saving technologies. The sequencing and mapping of the human genome, in particular, have profound implications for medical technologies. At the forefront of these possibilities is the opportunity for treating or preventing diseases through gene manipulation, often called "gene therapy." Somatic gene therapy attempts to correct a genetic defect in the cells or tissues of an individual in order to prevent or treat disease and may help heal or prevent debilitating afflictions. Somatic gene therapy should not be confused with germline therapy, which is more controversial and involves changes to an individual's genetic makeup that can then be passed on to future generations, with unknown implications and potential complications.
Stem cell research involves cells that can potentially develop into any kind of cell, tissue, or organ in the body ("totipotent stem cells") and that may one day soon be able to replace damaged or sick cells in a patient with an injury or degenerative disease. For example, scientific research into stem cell regeneration holds the promise of finding new and effective treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, and certain types of cancers. The moral imperative to pursue stem cell research is clear; it is an embodiment of the mitzvah, of healing. Our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill, and "when one delays in doing so, it is as if he has shed blood" (Shulchan Aruch,Yorei De`ah 336:1).
Totipotent stem cells are commonly obtained by using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technology. This technique, commonly referred to as cloning, involves the removal of the nucleus of an unfertilized, mature egg and its replacement with a genetically complete nucleus obtained from another adult or fetal organism. Since almost all of the hereditary genetic material of a cellis contained within its nucleus, the entity into which this egg develops is genetically identical to the organism that was the source of the transferred nucleus.
While some argue that stem cells harvested from adults and the existing stem cell lines are sufficient for research, most in the scientific community maintain that the use of SCNT technology to develop new stem cell lines ("embryonic stem cells") is critical to further development of the medical research. It is important to note that there are ample sources of embryos for research that are currently being discarded and that research using embryonic tissue would not require the creation of new embryos for the purpose of such research.
"Therapeutic cloning" uses SCNT technology to create cells that develop only until the pre-embryo stage, at which point the stem cells are removed. These stem cells are then used to research possible cures for serious medical diseases and conditions. In contrast, "reproductive cloning" attempts to use this technology to produce a living, breathing human being. This resolution deals with therapeutic cloning; it does not address the issue of reproductive cloning of humans.
SCNT technology can play a vital role in exploring the causes and treatment of genetic diseases; it may help to develop therapies for the afflictions mentioned above, and it may also help develop stem cells to regenerate human tissues, nerve cells, and skin cells.
Some opponents of SCNT technology argue that every fertilized egg could be allowed to develop into a fetus. Halting the process to harvest the stem cells seems to them like killing a fetus-a perspective the URJ has never accepted. Numerous URJ, CCAR and WRJ resolutions and CCAR Responsa about when life begins clarify our views in this area. (See, for example, the 1985 and 2000 CCAR Responsa related to abortion, found on-line at www.ccarnet.org/resp.)
To other opponents, the possibility for abuse of SCNT technology seems overwhelming, and for this reason, they would prohibit the entire field of research and therapy. While we recognize the potential abuses that could arise from SCNT technology, these concerns can be met by taking measured, cautious steps and are far outweighed by the potential benefit of medical procedures that promise to cure so many. JEWISH TRADITION TEACHES THE VALUE OF SAVING EVEN A SINGLE LIFE, AND THE CALLOUSNESS OF FAILING TO SAVE A LIFE WHEN POSSIBLE. AS WE LEARN IN THE TALMUD, "WHOEVER CAUSES THE LOSS OF A SINGLE SOUL IS AS THOUGH HE CAUSED THE LOSS OF A WORLD ENTIRE; AND WHOEVER SAVES A SINGLE LIFE IS AS THOUGH HE SAVED A UNIVERSE" (TALMUD, SANHEDRIN 37a).
Clearly, there is a need for moral and ethical deliberation, yet we know that millions of God's children are plagued by diseases and injuries that we have the potential to heal. The ethical choice must be to advance our research into lifesaving technologies, not abandon it.
THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:
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 (SCNT) technology for therapeutic cloning; and
Government funding for all such research;
Oppose efforts to restrict or penalize scientists, clinicians, or patients for participating in stem cell research and SCNT technology for therapeutic purposes;
Support appropriate legislative and executive actions consistent with the above objectives;
Support efforts by the scientific community to develop regulations and monitor those using SCNT technology; and
Call upon congregations, in conjunction with the URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns and the Commission on Social Action, to create educational programs that explore the issues raised by genetic technology within a framework of Jewish values.
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NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.