Let My Scientists Go

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Back on April 13, in the spirit, perhaps, of the Passover then just past, The New York Times editorialized about the need to “free” something from the “chains imposed” upon it. The sentence’s subject was “American science” and the Pharaoh-figure, President Bush.

“One man,” huffed the Old Gray Lady, “and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress.”

The editorial umbrage was the product of Mr. Bush’s declared intention to veto a bill currently wending its way through Congress that would ease restrictions on providing federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

Stem cells, of course, are biological entities with the remarkable ability to develop into many different types of specialized cells. They can theoretically divide and redivide without limit, and thus offer the hope that they might be harnessed to replenish damaged or diseased organs, tissues or blood.

Some stem cells can be harvested from umbilical cords, bone marrow and even from adult human tissue; but many medical researchers feel that stem cells taken from embryos present the greatest opportunities for potential therapy.

President Bush’s view is that, regardless, embryos containing all the ingredients for growing into babies are deserving of protection. Or, at least, that the United States government should not fund experimentation that will destroy such entities.

One bioethics analyst, Carrie Gordon Earl, asserts that the inevitable result of the enactment of legislation like that currently being mulled by Congress will be to reduce funding available for non-embryonic, or “adult,” stem cell research – research that, at present, is far more advanced than that being done on embryonic cells.

As it happens, just two days before The Times’ demand that Mr. Bush “Let My scientists go,” researchers announced a striking and promising stem cell therapy that might allow Type-1 diabetics to live healthy lives without taking insulin. Oddly, though, the announcement did not seem to generate any of the expansive celebration one might expect at news of a possible cure for a disease affecting millions of people and presenting tens of thousands of new cases each year.

Why the lack of hoopla? Maybe it was due to the fact that the therapy that had shown such promise involved not embryonic stem cells, but rather adult cells harvested from the patients themselves and then re-introduced into their bodies.

The Times of London’s news story on the announcement disclosed that fact only in its sixteenth paragraph – well after informing readers that embryonic stem cell research “is currently opposed by powerful critics, including President Bush.”

Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the propriety of destroying embryos for potentially life-saving medical research, and likewise about whether federal funds should be used for the same. Indeed, while the issue is complex and still under review in respected rabbinic circles, some Jewish scholars and groups, even within the Orthodox community, have concluded that Judaism – which assigns value to potential life and, despite some Jewish groups’ claims otherwise, does not consider abortion a “woman’s right” – would nonetheless encourage embryonic stem cell research under certain conditions, and have expressed support for federal funding for such research.

One doesn’t have to agree, though, with the President’s position on embryonic stem cell research to appreciate his caution in the brave new bioethics world.

The mark of true human civilization is the very concern for the “moral code” that The Times finds so quaint. And history teaches us how humankind has in fact taken gargantuan steps backward from the adjective “civilized” when it has not allowed moral concerns to “stand in the way,” as The Times puts it, “of scientific progress.”

At a time when cloning, the creation of hybrid-species-cells and the manipulation of genes have leaped from the realm of science fiction into that of emerging technologies, Mr. Bush’s insistence on giving moral considerations a seat at the scientific public policy table is not only defensible, it is admirable. The President’s position on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research may not endear him to millions of citizens who, for better or worse, have absorbed the mainstream media’s messages on the issue. Yet he stands firm and refuses to jump onto the embryo-experimentation bandwagon, because of his conviction that terminating life, even its potential – even under the banner of scientific progress – is something that must be approached with great deliberation.

That may make Mr. Bush into Pharaoh in the eyes of some, but the identification is as ironic as it is unfair.

For Pharaoh and his sorcerers – the scientists of his day, one might say – were profoundly unconcerned with either the value of human life or moral imperatives.

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13 Responses

  1. Raphael Kaufman says:

    Should some local or state government ban shechita, or even brit milah, it is clear that there will be no relief from the courts in the United States.

  2. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    A generation ago, it is possible that the courts might have overturned prohibitions on otherwise illegal drugs for religious use. However, after being packed with conservative appointees, the Supreme Court allowed such a prohibition. Indeed when Congress passed a law to protect such religious use, the Court gutted it. This goes far beyond abortion — should some local or state government ban shechita, or even brit milah, it is clear that there will be no relief from the courts in the United States.

  3. Raphael Kaufman says:

    Ori, your point is well taken and there is no need to posit hypotheticals. For instance, psychedelic mushrooms and herbs are illegal even though they are used in legitimate Native American religeous practices. But submitting to the laws of a particular society is not the same as agreeing with them. I submit that this is, in fact a First Amendment Issue (note that I wrote it as a question). It may be that the Courts will hold that there is an “overriding public interest” in ruling that life begins at conception even though the ruling conflicts with Halacha (which it does). In such a case we, as US citizens, will submit to the Law of the Land. But we should not, however, join with other religeous groups calling for such a ruling.

    The establishment of a just system of government is a Noachide law. These can be based on a secular concept of morality which is, of course, a human construct. As halachic Jews, we follow G-d’s Law. Human concepts of morality have nothing to do with it. There are many examples in Tanach, Mechias Amalek for one, that would would violate almost anyone’s idea of “rightness”, even King Saul’s. It is our job as Torah Jews to uphold and follow Halacha even when it coflicts with our personal sense of right and wrong. No one can control anyone’s personal beliefs and feelings, but to publicly espouse a position that is in conflict with Halacha simply to gain political advantage is a grave error.

  4. Noam says:

    I would add one item to Dr. Hall’s list. The Food and Drug Administration has never ruled against it’s scientific panel when it has reccomended a drug except in one instance- the morning after pill. And the basis for the overruling was flimsy at best(the concern that it hadn’t been tested in the under 16 population- as if it couldn’t have been approved with an age restriction, or other caveats).

  5. Charles B. Hall says:

    At least on the stem cell research issue the Bush administration is open about the fact that the policy decision is based on non-scientific grounds. Unfortunately, there are numerous other examples in which the Bush administration has engaged in the politicization of science in order to promote their ideological agenda. Examples include promotion of the discredited idea that abortion is associated with breast cancer, rejection of the fact of global warming and the strong evidence for its association with human activity, pushing of abstinence-only sex ed programs that were shown to be ineffective by the administration’s own evaluation, and using relativist arguments to support the teaching intelligent design as a legitimate scientific scientific theory. The last should be particularly chilling to those of us who believe in the existence of absolute truth.

  6. Charles B. Hall says:

    It is very misleading to say that there is a “Christian position” on abortion. Abortion is a major theological machloket within the Christian community today, with many churches (including President Bush’s own) supporting the so-called “pro-choice” side and arguing that *their* position is the proper interpretation of Christian theology.

    This is clearly not a dispute in which Jews should take sides. Has there ever, at any time in the past 1900 years, been an intra-Christian theological dispute in which our rabbis took a position? Better to simply state our own position regarding the halachah and leave it at that.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Raphael Kaufman: Right-to-Life/Pro-Choice is a first amendment issue. That is, can one group impose it’s religeous views on other religions.

    Ori: I disagree. Imagine that there was a religion, the hypotheticalians, who said that life begins at the age of one week. If a hypotheticalian woman were to kill her three day old baby, she would still go to jail – we would impose our “life starts at birth” standard.

    Similarly, if adherents of a specific religion (or subgroup thereof) believed that women who act in a certain way are asking to be raped, we’d still jail them if they rape any of those women example.

    To live in a human society, we have to impose some moral laws. For many people, their moral code comes from their religion. To turn it into a 1st ammendment issue will allow crimes in the name of religion.

    Note: I decided not to address the question of when life starts. I’m not competent to have an opinion.

  8. Noam says:

    I have not read the article in the Times. However, from the snippet quoted by Rabbi Shafran, it says “their moral code”, not “a moral code.” President Bush is not the only one who has a moral code. And, disagreeing with President Bush’s moral code does not imply that a moral code does not exist. This is poor logic, and a poor assumption.

    I have read a number of very respected poskim who opine that stem cells from fetuses are ok for research. Therefore, the Fundamentalist Christian position is not necessarily the halachic position. In fact, the fundamentalist Christian position on fetuses and abortion is NOT the same as any halachic position. While I agree agree on working with people when our interests coincide, the halachic and Christian approaches to not coincide on this issue. The Christian approach is that life begins at conception. We do not hold that. There are implications to this seemingly small difference. There are instances where abortion would be mandatory in Jewish law, but would be forbidden under the Christian formulations. I dont see how there could be halachic support for the Christian formulations, knowing that if those are codified into the law of the land, following halacha would wind up being a criminal offense.

    All believing Jews want a moral society. The basic question is: is it better to err on the side of too much freedom, or on the side of too many(and in many cases non-halachic) restrictions. I would hope that we remember the lessons of history when non-Jewish religions are allowed to dictate the laws of the land. we need to have the freedom to follow the dictates of the Torah, and have the confidence in our fellow Jews, and our fellow citizens that they will not abuse that freedom.

  9. Tal Benschar says:

    The immorality here is the position argued for by the Times — that anything in the name of science must ipso facto be ok, and any objection or reservation on moral grounds is to be regarded as benighted medieval religiosity.

    How is this stance different from Dr. Mengele, yimach shmo?

  10. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Gershon Josephs: Rather, the issue is that Bush’s particular moral considerations are informed by a version of right wing fundamentalist Christianity

    Ori: Do you consider any moral argument informed by right wing fundamentalist Christianity inherently wrong and not worthy of consideration? If so, why? If not, could you argue the merits of this particular case without what is essentially an ad-hominem attack?

  11. Raphael Kaufman says:

    Torah Jews in general and the Agudah in particular should be very wary of aligning themselves with alien religeous doctrines. The positions taken by certain Christian Fundamentalist groups and the President vis a vis abortion, embrionic stem cell research, the “Morning After Pill”, etc. do not agree with normative Halacha.

    Right-to-Life/Pro-Choice is a first amendment issue. That is, can one group impose it’s religeous views on other religions.

    R. Kaufman
    Monsey NY

  12. Gershon Josephs says:

    > Mr. Bush’s insistence on giving moral considerations a seat at the scientific public policy table is not only defensible, it is admirable.

    You are misrepresenting the issue here. The issue is not Bush’s ‘moral considerations’. Nobody is against morality. Rather, the issue is that Bush’s particular moral considerations are informed by a version of right wing fundamentalist Christianity, which many people find alarming. And so should you, being a religious Jew.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    For many, any stem cell research that does not involve the use of fetuses is not a useful justification for abortion, so it deserves no publicity.