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 leftover embryos are the result of fertility procedures in which many of a woman's eggs are fertilized in the hopes of producing a viable pregnancy. Many fertility clinics freeze these "pre-embryos"; others simply discard them. It's estimated that there are about 100,000 surplus embryos frozen in fertility clinics around the country.

For some traditional Jewish groups, the fact that embryos are destroyed could pose a problem. The question of when life begins also figures into the debate. But most Jewish ethicists and medical and religious personnel contacted for this story agreed that in Jewish tradition, it is permissible to destroy an embryo for the purpose of benefiting other living human beings. In fact, most embraced the concept of stem cell research enthusiastically.

Typical were the comments of Dr. Lee Shulman, the director of reproductive genetics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a professor of ob/gyn and molecular genetics there. Speaking from Washington, D.C., where he was testifying before Congress on genetic testing issues, he said that "as a geneticist, the concept that we would somehow place restraints on (stem cell) research, when it is in its embryonic phase, makes very little sense to me."

"I don't know when life begins, but the thought that this (research) is involved with life is a stretch from a Jewish point of view," he said.

"The explosion of genetic research of all types has been fraught with ethical issues," Shulman said. "But to stop the research because of these kinds of issues just doesn't seem smart."

From a halakhic [Jewish legal] perspective, experts admit it's difficult to find traditional Jewish sources that address stem cell research directly, says professor 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--to approve a broad range of medical experimentation.

Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of Chicago's Orthodox religious court, said that he is not ready to issue an opinion on the matter. He is reading the relevant literature, he said, and will soon meet with an eminent research scientist who also understands the halakhic (Jewish law) ramifications of the procedure.

But Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Jewish Medical Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York and one of the country's leading medical ethicists, 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 Washington, D.C. event. He called a Senate bill that would restrict stem cell research "an evil that's being perpetrated on America."

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Pauline D. Yearwood

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