With all the disagreements within modern Judaism, embryonic-stem-cell research is an area of remarkable moral and theological consensus. Judaism is pro-medicine; there are no clear grounds in Jewish law for treating human embryos as inviolable; therefore the moral duty to advance potentially life-saving research trumps any moral concerns about the exploitation and destruction of human embryos in the laboratory. On this question, Reform Jews who never feel bound by Jewish law and Orthodox Jews who always live in strict accordance with Jewish law entirely agree: Full speed ahead.
It is in this context that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, one of the most important Jewish organizations in America, has circulated a letter in support of the Castle-DeGette bill (H.R. 810), legislation that would provide federal funding for research using embryos created initially for reproductive purposes but left-over in fertility clinics. The letter is worth quoting at some length:
The Jewish tradition places great value upon human life and its preservation. The Torah commands us to treat and cure the ill and to defeat disease wherever possible; to do this is to be the Creator’s partner in safeguarding the created. The traditional Jewish perspective thus emphasizes that the potential to save and heal human lives is an integral part of valuing human life. Moreover, the traditional Jewish perspective does not accord an embryo outside of the womb the full status of humanhood and its attendant protections. Thus, stem cell research may be consistent with and serve these moral and noble goals; however, such research must not be pursued indiscriminately.
H.R. 810 strikes this careful balance. By insisting that publicly funded stem cell research be conducted on cells derived from embryos donated to IVF clinics and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking IVF treatment, and by requiring the prior consultation with and consent of the donors, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act serves to value and venerate the sanctity of life and our responsibilities to our fellow man and woman.
In the end, the argument that such embryos are available for our use because they are leftover (“donated to IVF clinics”), because they are unwanted (“in excess of clinical need”), and because they are likely to die anyway is morally unconvincing. Human dignity does not depend on being wanted by others; and being doomed to death does not make human beings into things — otherwise, the terminally ill would be in danger of being turned into ready sources of organs. In the end, the moral question hinges on the moral standing of human embryos themselves — on what human embryos are and what we owe them. And it seems irresponsible for Judaism to seek the fruits of modern science without confronting the facts modern biology — which demonstrates, beyond reasonable doubt, that the embryo is a complete human organism from the moment of conception, with purposeful division and development from the very beginning, and with primordial limbs, organs, and beating heart tissue by age 40 days. To call such embryos “mere water” denies the biological and human reality that lies before us.
It also seems irresponsible to ignore the many references in Jewish literature and Jewish law that celebrate the dignity and mystery of developing life, and that describe the violation of God’s majestic creation entailed in deliberately destroying it. Even the wisest rabbi many centuries ago could not deal adequately and precisely with the moral complexity of our current biotechnology. Instead, the Jewish sages of the past can offer us moral guideposts — things to revere and things to avoid — that we must wisely apply in light of current knowledge and current circumstances. This means not only considering the act in itself — embryo destruction — but the environment in which the act will be committed, and by whom. And I think it is fair to say that most stem-cell biologists — those in the laboratories destroying embryos — don’t revere God and Torah the way most Orthodox Jews do. This, too, the wise Jewish citizen must remember.
While acting positively to save life is a great Jewish good, so is preserving a society that welcomes the weak and never kills the innocent. Even if embryos are not our ontological or moral equals — though the argument for such a position is hard to make on rational grounds — there are good Jewish reasons not to promote the destruction of nascent human life, precisely because it will corrode the sensibilities that make us good people — and good Jews. It is simply wrong to appeal to Jewish law on abortion, which privileges the life of the mother over the life of the unborn child, as a moral justification. Jewish law does so, after all, only in cases where the unborn child is a “pursuer” who threatens the mother’s life and health directly. With embryo research, by contrast, there is no direct conflict between an embryo and a patient, and we are not in the position of using particular embryos to save particular patients. Rather, we are proposing a speculative research project that requires the massive, ongoing destruction of human embryos. And this should make all Jews and all decent citizens shudder — not only for what it is, but for where it might lead. Where is the Jewish “fence around the law” when you need it?
But what is most remarkable about the Orthodox Union’s letter is the seemingly disingenuous character of the way it endorses H.R. 810 — by saying that the legislation strikes a “careful balance” by promoting only research on leftover IVF embryos. Anyone who has followed the Orthodox Union knows, after all, that this organization has been one of the most vigorous proponents for research cloning — that is, for creating human embryos solely for research that requires their destruction. There are no “leftover” cloned embryos. There are no cloned embryos that are “in excess of clinical need.” There is no “careful balance” being struck in the South Korean-style research that the Orthodox Union proudly supports. And if one rereads these past endorsements of research cloning — easily discovered on the Orthodox Union’s website — they are prefaced with the exact same moral language as the endorsement of H.R. 810 — with a discussion about the Torah tradition’s “great value upon human life” and the fact that “our tradition states that an embryo in vitro does not enjoy the full status of humanhood.”
Perhaps the “careful balance” is simply political and not ethical, and perhaps we can expect a letter any day now saying that the Orthodox Union is absolutely opposed to federal funding for “research cloning” and absolutely opposed to federal funding for creating human embryos solely for research. But this seems rather unlikely. More likely is that the Castle-DeGette bill is just one step towards seeking — or demanding — federal funding for research cloning, too, since “defeating disease” may require creating the kind of tailor-made stem cells that cannot be created using only the “spares.” This is why everyone is so excited about so-called “therapeutic cloning” in the first place, and why many scientists say using the “spares” is “not enough.”
On most issues, Orthodox Judaism is a beacon of moral wisdom. And personally, I wish I lived up to the standards of everyday holiness embodied by many Orthodox Jews. But on the stem-cell question, the conscience of Judaism has been misguided. And when it comes to the Castle-DeGette bill, Jews seem to have forgotten even the minimal liberal wisdom of tolerance — the wisdom of not trampling on the moral opinions of their fellow citizens, like pro-life Christians, who believe embryo destruction is not only evil but the gravest evil. As Jews, don’t we owe our fellow citizens the minimal decency of not asking them to pay for the activity that most offends them? (The Bush policy that the Orthodox Union seeks to overturn, one must remember, does not fund embryo research or ban embryo research; its practical effect is ultimately neutral.) As Jews, don’t we know what it is like to have our own deepest principles and practices trampled upon by the state? And as Jews, are we really so sure that medical progress justifies or requires the full-scale dehumanization of early human life? Have we forgotten not only the words but also the spirit of Ecclesiastes: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, Nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; Even so thou knowest not the work of God Who doeth all things”?