Illustration of figure wearing a yarmulke looking at a poster showing stages of fetal growth


Stem Cell Dissent

You can’t call for the fruits of science without confronting the facts of science.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Eric Cohen

The old joke has it that wherever you have two Jews, you have at least three opinions. On most things, I think that’s true, whether it’s keeping kosher, who’s Jewish, the wisdom of doing intermarriages, whether you can drive on the Sabbath, whether you should even keep the Sabbath, whether a brand of cheese is kosher or not, and so on. There is much passionate disagreement about all kinds of issues.

One of the few issues in recent years that seems to have united all segments of mainstream Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—is enthusiasm for embryonic stem cell research. Not only has there been enthusiasm for it, but there seems to be a prevailing belief that Jews and the Jewish movement should be outspoken about this issue and should call for public funding for embryo-destructive research.

I am a dissenter on the Jewish perspective with regard to this issue. I believe that this advocacy is misguided both on political, democratic grounds and on moral, philosophical grounds. I argue that there is tension between Jewish opinion on the stem cell question, and what I’ll tentatively call Jewish wisdom on these matters.

Before I get to my critique, let me try to state as fairly and clearly as I can the Jewish opinion on these matters. There are two roots of enthusiasm from a Jewish perspective for embryonic stem cell research. First is the high place the Jewish tradition places on life and on healing and medicine and on the good of medicine, a place that it rightfully deserves, not only in the Jewish tradition, but in all great humanistic and religious traditions. We’re all patients, potential patients, or soon-to-be patients. All of us, except for those who are taken suddenly from life, will one day suffer and put our first hope, if not our only hope, in medicine. We must sympathize with this great moral aspiration to heal.

The second root of the Jewish enthusiasm for embryonic stem cell research is the Jewish understanding, as it is interpreted by most preeminent Jewish thinkers, about the standing of nascent human life. This is a vast oversimplification of that thinking, but the basic premise is that status is accrued, it’s not there from the beginning, and 40 days mark a morally significant point in Jewish law. Before 40 days, nascent life is more like water; after that, it be-comes something more significant. There is an appeal to this interpretation of Jewish law, as well as an intuition that when you encounter these embryos, they don’t seem like the suffering parent with Alzheimer’s or the suffering spouse with Parkinson’s disease. Because these embryos don’t seem like much, if we can use them in the noble cause of healing the sick, our intuitions tell us that we ought to do so.

However, I believe that we face a novel situation, one that I don’t think rabbinical authorities of centuries and millennia past could anticipate in its moral fullness. If I were truly orthodox, perhaps I should believe that the rabbis anticipated every-thing and that the law actually does ad-dress every issue, but I guess I’m not quite that orthodox. The existence of the embryo outside the body, there to be held by human hands and beheld by human eyes, is a kind of novelty and has only existed for the last few decades. I think it’s a moment in human history—scientific, moral, and civilizational history—that we’re only beginning to understand.

Of course, there is a lot of complicated Jewish law and Jewish thinking on the abortion question, and on when an abortion is morally permissible. While relevant in the sense of an effort to think carefully and morally about the standing of nascent human life in general, it seems to me not the most relevant way to think about the issue of whether we should use human embryos in research. Abortion is most clearly permissible in Jewish law when the developing life is a kind of aggressor or pursuer of the person in whom that life exists. But in the case of embryonic research, the  embryo is not an aggressor or pursuer, but a bystander, and, I would argue, an innocent bystander. So I think we face a novel situation that simple, rote appeals to Jewish law don’t help us with.

The real crux of the problem with Jewish opinion is that you can’t hunger for the benefits of modern biological science in the form of stem cell research without confronting the facts that modern science has given us about modern embryology. The 40-day stage is simply not a significant moment in embryonic development. It may be to the rabbis, but it’s not in fact. What we know now from modern embryology is that at the moment of conception, you have a new human organism, a life in process, a life unfolding. It’s what all of us looked like at that moment of our existence. The sperm and egg that created us could have been half of someone else, so to speak, but we were all human embryos, even at that first moment of division. This is scientific fact. It doesn’t settle the moral question, and we need to reason morally and philosophically to think about what our moral obligations are, but you can’t call for the fruits of science without confronting the facts of science. And yet I think too much Jewish opinion on this matter has done just that.

What might a Jewish wisdom look like on this? I could quote various sources from the Zohar and the Talmud, but the sources don’t cut all in one direction. I think there are four dimensions to a tentative Jewish wisdom on the embryo question:

The first dimension is the notion that all human beings are created in the image of God. This is, at bottom, a radical teaching about human equality. It means that even those who don’t seem like very much bear the imprint of their creator and therefore have a kind of elevated dignity—small and weak, young and old, disabled and very able, we all equally bear that image of God and that gives us a certain status in the world.

The second element of Jewish wisdom on these questions is the correction of our vision, the correction of our sight. Others have written about this (not in the bioethics context), interpreting the creation story as a denigration of sight and an establishment of moral authority separate from sight. Our eyes, alas, can lead us astray. If I can put it this way: I think we need to try to see the embryos in the way that God sees us. In the eyes of God, we can’t seem like very much, and yet the reason that we feel so compelled to heal one another is because we are something. We realize this through the love that we hold for one an-other. Perhaps God sees a majesty in these tiny embryos that we would do better to try to see ourselves.

The third dimension of Jewish wisdom on this has to do with the dangers of de-fining a class of human beings as unworthy of life. Now, I think comparisons of embryo research with the Holocaust are terribly misguided. Destroying embryos in the noble cause of curing disease is not the equivalent of the mass, systematic slaughter of our brothers and sisters and husbands and wives. That said, the easy dismissal of these comparisons is also mis-guided. It is at our peril that we define a class of human beings, even embryos that don’t seem like much, as something to be used, and I think that Jews especially should understand that.

The final dimension of Jewish wisdom on this issue has to do with the meaning of human procreation. The reason these human embryos exist outside the body in the first place is the burden and the horror of infertility and the desire, through in vitro fertilization, to overcome that terrible bur-den. This is arguably the paradigmatic bibical story, the problem of infertility and the desire to overcome it. But in embryo-destructive research, we’ve abandoned the teaching about the deep meaning and dignity of human procreation. By slaying the embryo in the name of healing ourselves, we’re voting against the next generation. The deepest Jewish answer to our mortality is the possibility and the hope that is embodied in the next generation. Creating human embryos solely to use them and destroy them is an ultimate act of ingratitude for human procreation. I think it’s no coincidence that the most death-defying civilization in human history is also the least fertile and the most child-denying civilization in human history.

I hope that the creativity of science (finding other ways to do stem cell research) and the moral wisdom of religion in trying to set certain kinds of moral guidelines can lead to a way forward in stem cell research on a ground that all citizens can embrace.

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Tikvah Fund and director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served for five years on the President’s Council on Biomedical Ethics. This talk was part of the public forum “Religious Perspectives on Stem Cell Research” held March 14, 2007, at Harvard Divinity School and sponsored with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

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