Ask the Rabbi: Means to an end?

Does Judaism support embryonic stem-cell research?

embryo 88 248 (photo credit: Life Issues Institute)
embryo 88 248
(photo credit: Life Issues Institute)
Q Does Judaism support embryonic stem-cell research? - Dani S, New York A With the recent announcement of the Obama camp that the US president-elect intends to review President George W. Bush's ban on funding newly created cell lines, the moral debate regarding stem-cell research will undoubtedly reignite in the coming months. To my mind, the media's portrayal of the "religious perspective" has not reflected the Jewish position, and it behooves our community to publicize the interdenominational support for this research. Stem cell research focuses on the pluripotent stem cells that develop in the earliest stages of the embryonic process. Since these "precursor" cells later divide into cells with specific functions (nerve cells, liver cells, etc.), scientists believe that a greater understanding of them will generate treatments for abnormal or diseased cells that cause everything from Parkinson's and strokes to burns and arthritis. Scientists obtain stem cells from different sources, including surplus embryos from fertility treatments, cloning, creating embryos for research purposes and aborted fetuses. (While helpful, adult stem cells in umbilical cord blood remain less efficacious for research and potential treatments.) Judaism wholeheartedly endorses medicine, viewing the saving and nurturing of life as an important mitzva. Medical research to cure future illnesses, as such, represents an important communal responsibility, similar to a nation's obligation to prepare for its military defense needs. However, as Rabbi J. David Bleich has emphasized, not all means justify the desired end of medical breakthroughs (Tradition 36:2). We must first investigate and overcome the potential legal and moral problems of stem-cell research before advocating its use. Given the moral sensitivity of "beginning-of-life" questions, such as abortion and birth control, the different sources of embryonic stem cells raise varying legal and ethical questions. As might be expected, the most controversial sources for stem cells are aborted fetuses. Jews with a "pro-choice" attitude toward non-therapeutic abortion see less of a problem in utilizing the aborted fetus for stem cells. Those inclined to oppose abortion for non-therapeutic reasons, however, must balance their desire not to encourage unjustified feticide with the recognition that these fetuses will otherwise be discarded. One prominent Conservative bioethicist, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, contends that we should utilize aborted fetuses, particularly when the abortion was halachically justifiable. In light of alternative sources, however, many Orthodox rabbis have opposed using aborted fetuses, believing that we should not benefit from - and possibly implicitly support - immoral behavior. My impression is that due to these moral sensitivities, the scientific community itself prefers using other sources of stem cells. Given its accessibility, the most favored source for stem cells are unused embryos from fertility treatment. To protect the mother's health, doctors cannot insert into the woman all of the embryos created through the union of sperm and eggs in petri dishes. Instead of disposing of these embryos, couples may elect to donate them for research. The propriety of destroying such embryos relates to whether we grant human status to either in vitro or early-stage embryos. While feticide might be forbidden in later stages of pregnancy, many decisors contend that we do not recognize as an organism an embryo within 40 days of gestation, treating it like "mere water" (Ahiezer III:65). They base this, for example, on the Mishna that states that an embryo miscarried within 40 days of cohabitation does not render the woman ritually unpure as childbirth does (Nidda 30a). Others contend that life begins at conception, and that therefore any destruction of an embryo remains forbidden. Former chief rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, for example, held to this position, contending that our willingness to violate Shabbat to save such a fetus indicates that the embryo maintains human status (Shevet MeYehuda I:9). Many contemporary decisors, however, contend that this debate regarding feticide within 40 days of gestation is irrelevant in our case, since we are dealing with destroying an embryo conceived and developing ex utero. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, for example, contends that since the embryo will ultimately die in the petri dish unless it gets implanted in the woman's uterus, it can be destroyed at will. Combining the two factors of an ex-utero embryo within 40 days of gestation, most contemporary scholars believe that it is permissible to use "spare" embryos from fertility treatments to research stem cells. While the destruction of such embryos for medical research might remain permissible, oversight remains necessary to ensure that this potentially powerful technology does not get abused into nefarious eugenics. That said, from a Jewish perspective, Bush's attempt to limit federal funding of this research went too far in stifling this potentially life-saving research. Judaism does not believe that early-stage embryos conceived in petri dishes represent human life. We hope and pray that stem-cell research will lead to divine blessings of medical advances and treatment. The author, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.