Jewish Views on Stem Cell Research

The stem cells most likely to be of scientific value come from discarded embryos. Is it ethical to use these?

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The following article refers to President Bush's deliberations about allowing funding for stem cell research. On August 9, 2001, Bush gave his qualified approval for such funding, permitting it for research done on existing stem cell lines, that is, stem cell lines created from embryos that have already been destroyed. The following is reprinted with permission from The Chicago Jewish News.

Pikuach nefesh. Preservation of life. Even if you can't pronounce it, you've no doubt heard of it. In the Jewish tradition, it's the most important obligation of all, overriding almost all other laws.

And saving life, say doctors and scientists, is what stem cell research is all about. Most Jewish thinkers, medical personnel and ethicists agree, saying Jewish tradition allows embryos to be destroyed if the research has the potential to benefit society.

A debate rages because some abortion opponents, including Pope John Paul II, regard the embryos, which are destroyed after the stem cells are extracted, as human life. Some Jewish medical ethicists, too, are currently engaged in discussion over this use of human embryos. It's one of the hottest topics in the nation right now as President George W. Bush ponders whether to allow federal funding for stem cells taken from human embryos [his decision was subsequently made on August 2001, as noted above].

Stem cells are special types of cells that have the potential to grow into any cell or tissue in the body, and so can be used to replace cells that are damaged or diseased. Researchers believe the use of stem cells has the potential for curing Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, severe burns, and many more illnesses and injuries, literally allowing the body to heal itself. These amazing cells can come from many sources besides embryos, including umbilical cords and bone marrow, tissues and fat from adult humans. But medical researchers overwhemingly report that embryonic cells have the greatest potential for curing disease. Their ability to convert into other types of cells is far more potent than that of adult stem cells.

A recent National Institutes of Health study reported that both embryonic and adult stem cells present immense research opportunities for potential therapy. But, the report notes, embryonic stem cells can proliferate indefinitely, while adult cells cannot.

Controversy arises because some, though by no means all, abortion opponents and members of the "pro-life" movement regard the embryos as nascent human life. Some also make a distinction between using left-over embryos at fertility clinics--which would be destroyed anyway--and using cells from aborted fetuses or creating embryos especially for harvesting stem cells. The NIH study recommends using only discarded embryos from fertility clinics in federally funded research.

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Pauline D. Yearwood

Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is the managing editor of The Chicago Jewish News.