Whence You Came


At some point, a tiny human embryo, properly cared for, becomes a baby.

Taken apart, however, an embryo can provide embryonic stem cells that can be coaxed to grow into practically any tissue of the body, offering the hope that experimenting with them could yield treatments for a host of diseases.

Some equate such experimentation on embryos with murder; others dismiss out of hand any concern for what is done to what is, at the time, an undifferentiated biological mass. Those are the positions on the extremes of the embryonic stem cell research spectrum.

From the perspective of Jewish religious law, things are not as simple as either polar position. A host of fine-point factors imbue the calculus, which is why Agudath Israel, on the advice of the rabbinical leaders at its helm, has not taken a public stance on the issue. But an issue it is. And President Obama, it seems, recognizes that fact.

Back in March, the President issued an Executive Order lifting Bush Administration limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, enthusing proponents of such science.

“We’re thrilled,” said a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine at the time, “that the president is going to lift the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.” In the Jewish world, Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, director of his movement’s Religious Action Center, wrote how “refreshing” he found it to have an administration “committed to rooting its science policy in fact, no matter its ideology, rather than rooting its science policy in ideology, no matter the facts.”

But the “ideology” in this context would be better described as an ethical concern. Communism and fascism are ideologies; respect for human life, whether at its end or its beginning, is a matter of morality. As Slate columnist William Saletan has written, to dismiss opposition to embryonic research as “ideology” is to “forget the moral problem.” Some proponents of embryo research, he observes, regard “the war on disease… like the war on terror. Either you’re with science or you’re against it.”

Not so, thankfully, Mr. Obama. Last month, under his direction, the National Institutes of Health revealed details of the change in policy. Whereas the Bush administration had approved 21 already established stem cell lines for federally funded research, now stem cells from embryos slated for destruction – largely those left over from fertility treatments, with donors’ written consent – will be available to researchers for experimentation funded by federal tax dollars.

Mr. Obama, however, did not voice support for using federal funds to create embryos for research purposes. While privately funded researchers have never been barred from creating and destroying embryos, since 1996 a federal law known as the Dickey-Wicker amendment has disallowed federal funds to be used for such purposes. Noting that “Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research,” the President opted not to enter the Dickey-Wicker sticky wicket.

The New York Times editorial page was not amused, calling the President’s stance “the easy political path.” The Religious Action Center was, uncharacteristically, silent. Researchers voiced vexation. Dr. Irving Weissman, director of a stem cell research facility at Stanford University, asserted that the NIH’s guidelines put an “ideological barrier in the way” of treating disease. The “I” word again.

Thankfully, the entire issue of whether it is ethical to create potential humans in order to dismember them for scientific purposes – or, at least, to federally fund the enterprise – may be in the process of becoming moot. Two years ago, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka found that adult skin cells – millions of which each of us can spare without much trouble – can be induced to revert to an embryonic stage. Such technology, says Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, a stem cell researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, “may eventually eclipse the embryonic stem cell lines for therapeutic as well as diagnostics applications.” In fact, there are clear advantages, particularly in potential therapeutic use, for treating patients with cells that originated in their own bodies.

Should Dr. Yamanaka’s finding open up a new and ethically untroubling universe of cells for research, the day may be coming when no one will have any reason or wish to destroy embryos. And certainly not to grow them into fetuses in order to harvest their organs – the next-step idea broached several months ago at a scientific symposium in England.

In the meantime, we Americans can be comforted by the knowledge that our President seems to recognize the gravity of the fact that human embryos can grow into people as real as the readers of these lines.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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David N. Friedman
6 years 4 months ago

One Christian, I truly apologize for how some Jews respond to life issues. It is true that the traditional Christian community is pro-life and this pro-life position comes directly from Jewish sources. Jews are the original pro-life community and all the nuance and double talk perpetrated by modern Jews cannot change the reality.

When Charles Hall says that the Christian position is not identical to the Jewish one–so what? He means to deflect and not answer the question–is 53 million abortions good or bad? To say that early term abortion may not be considered murder under Jewish law confounds the problem. And to defeat his assumption, having spoken to conservative Christian leaders–yes, they would be pleased and totally delighted to have the Jewish standard as the law of the land, as Jerry Falwell confided to me privately–that is, with the life of the mother respected (also rape and incest but that is not Jewish law.) Of course abortion is a moral wrong (unless a fetus is a direct threat to the life of the mother) and yes, current law cannot be justified under Jewish terms. Therefore, to ask what Jewish law says it much more meaningful than it is to search for how Jewish law differs from Christian theology.

Charles Hall says that when one works hard and has some funding, results can be encouraging. The truth is that the results have been spectacular and revolutionary–grossly under reported because somehow, someway, scientific breakthroughs are now judged under leftist politicization to be either “correct” or “incorrect” breakthroughs. As if I am a patient in need of some medical breakthrough, I really care!! Michael has a point that I easily honor. The point here is that research for embryonic stem cells is a worldwide endeavor (Israel has sadly poured money into the effort, also coming up with nothing thus far)and the question concerns US Federal governmental funding. “On the verge” is a very boring 10 year promise,constantly repeated– and if people want to do this sort of thing, they will, despite the moral implications. As Jacques Elul observed, “man will do what man can do.” Governments should do what is known to produce results right now. Drug companies pour a lot of money into basic research–oftentimes, medical breakthroughs come about accidentally. The American taxpayer should not foot the bill for this kind of research since it is immoral and not producing results. When adult stem cell technology is working–it needs to be encouraged so we can help people right now. Billions spent for the HOPE of embryo-based technology is harming patients today when no hope is needed for effective stem-cells solutions now available. This administration has no handle on pragmatic or cost-effective calculations. Obama is all about ideology and we all suffer as a result.

Global warming is disbelieved by the majority of Americans and most scientists are in general agreement that mankind cannot significantly change earth’s climate by tweaking the tiny amount of CO2 that is in the atmosphere. This is why global warming is far more hoax than science. Liberals have banned DDT, a fabulous chemical, while millions of Africans have died of malaria as a result. Liberals want our automobiles to be lighter and more dangerous so thousands MORE Americans will die because of their unscientific thinking. Liberal fantasies concerning science have literally killed millions worldwide.

Charles B. Hall
6 years 4 months ago

David Friedman,

Sen. Hatch cosponsored a bill that would have permitted somatic cell nuclear transplantation, commonly known as “therapeutic cloning”, banned reproductive cloning, and instituted federal oversight:

This is the closest thing I’ve seen to the OU/RCA position; it is entirely possible that they lobbied in favor of this proposal. But most of the Right refused to support this. As a result, there remains no regulation of embryonic stem cell research by private laboratories in the US.

You are correct that some proponents of stem cell research have engaged in hyperbole, and I deplore that. But could you please cite the seventy diseases that you say are curable today through adult stem cells?

David N. Friedman
6 years 4 months ago

To Charles Hall: I am pleased to correct the record and the misinformation. The entire debate over embryonic stem cell research is so unfortunate and so overloaded with false information.
Much has changed since I entered this issue in about 2002. President Bush appointed the very fine Leon Kass to guide him through this issue and he was very well served and quickly came up with the correct policy–it now seems like such a long time ago when we had a government that could look at a topic and reach the correct conclusion by properly assessing all the facts.

We knew at that time that research with adult stem cells was progressing beautifully and real advances were being made. By contrast, we were being pummeled with the threat that quick advances and miracle cures could only come with embryonic manipulations which destroyed embryos and we were told science was on the verge of unbelievable advances. Hearing those promises, we helped encourage President Bush to stand firm against going down that road since the inevitable result would be cloning. We sheepishly believed that what could be achieved with cord blood and all other forms of adult stem cells would be as good as the potential from dismembering embryos into their constituent parts.

Now, after billions of dollars and 7 more long years–none of us would have predicted that the science of embryonic research would come up with literally nothing. If this kind of research is morally repugnant it is best to allow for the morally acceptable substitute. But if embryo destruction is also a complete waste of time and money from the perspective of its scientific value–the issue is very easy. Bush was not simply correct–he was correct exponentially. Obama–ignoring all of the results of this long emotional political battle–did not even look into the topic–he just did what he was told and signed the bill to continue the madness, accelerating the wasteful spending just when the country has no capacity for more waste.

In the intervening seven years, more than 70 diseases have been made curable by research involving adult stem cells. The tally for diseases treated by embryonic stem cells–to the best of my knowledge–is zero. Are the politicians paying attention? Not really.

When Charles Hall comes forward to proclaim that good people agree with Obama and support embryonic stem cell research–he is not forthcoming with the facts. It is true that even Republican senators have supported resolutions to use embryonic stem cells but they have done so in very limited terms. They have said that they support such research only when embryos are not killed and there is no cloning. Some like Sen. Frist are famous for standing up against the politicization of science as when Presidential Candidate John Edwards claimed that he could save Christopher Reeves’ life if he was made President. Frist really stood up for common sense, science and the Republican majority against those who wanted to take what is rightly a non-political issue and turn it into a political football. Now, Frist is depicted as somehow being an embryonic research supporter against the minority of “deniers.”

Bush and Kass and our team correctly predicted that if we went down the road for embryos, we would be destroying embryos and making a market for additional embryos to be used specifically for research and cloning would quickly be on the table. Obama passed his resolution, ignoring the headlines that adult stem cells are saving more than 70 diseases, and the Dems are now in Congress right now asking for cloning. Predictions which are proven command respect. The Left is always wrong and yet they are in power with their failed predictions at the fore. Embryonic stem cells are still that supposed miracle we are right on the verge of achieving–just like it was claimed even more than 10 years ago.

The OU is not paying attention.

6 years 4 months ago

This article addresses the decision made by President Obama (or perhaps more precisely by the NIH) to maintain some of the restrictions in place concerning federal funding for ESC research. As Rabbi Shafran notes, this decision contrasts with the view held by some supporters of ESC research that there is no moral issue surrounding ESC collection, and that any restrictions put in place represent a narrow ideological view. I would hope that many if not most supporters of ESC research recognize that there are moral issues involved, and that any decision in the matter must take multiple factors into consideration.
However, the scientific issues raised about ESC research must not be conflated with the moral ones. The notion of limiting funding to adult stem cells because of their demonstrated therapeutic potential does not accurately portray the manner in which scientific research is conducted. A distinction must be made between translational research, which is more directly relevant therapeutically, and basic science research, which is more geared toward understanding the underlying mechanisms. It may be true that at the translational level, adult stem cell research is more solid at this stage. However, ESC certainly can already play a role in basic research, especially in the realm of tissue differentiation. And the understanding obtained through basic science research does lead to clinically useful applications, often in unanticipated ways. None of this addresses moral reasons for which one might oppose ESC research. But the claim that ESC research shows no indication of scientific value is unwarranted.

One Christian's perspective
6 years 4 months ago

“to fund the killing of embryos because they simply want to stick it to former President Bush” – David N. Friedman

Comment by Charlie Hall :
President Bush’s unfortunate and unprecedented politicization of scientific research needed to be reversed, and this is a part of it. Furthermore, a lot of pro-Life political conservatives also support embryonic stem cell research. Do you really believe Bill Frist, Judd Gregg, Orrin Hatch, Trent Lott, Richard Lugar, Gordon Smith, and John Warner were trying to “stick it” to President Bush? All voted to overturn Bush’s ban three years ago.

There is definitely a polarization of ideals in our nation. Pew Research has produced a study that reveals one segment of the polarization as seen between A) those in favor of government doing more to encourage morality in our nation and B) those in favor of government staying out of morality. I believe President Bush was trying to encourage morality and limit rampant immorality through Government spending and Government legislation. Government support for abortion was facilitated in the seed of the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs Wade and funded in subsequent years by funds distributed to Planned Parenthood. Once the abortion has been accomplished, the Government has forgotten the emotional and spiritual pain these women have suffered years afterward. (However, in the article “Coming to Terms”, there is a growing network of mothers support difficult birth choices. From one Nancy Mayer-Whittington “Life is about a relationship to God.” (Washington Times, may 10, 2009). Additionally, Government pressure on the banking industry to grant very high risk loans while maintaining a lack of over-sight by the Banking Commission brought about the elevation of greed to its highest standard in our nation and world-wide. In the long run and in both cases, those who the Government sought to help the most, were hurt the most.

In response to your question concerning the voting for embryonic stem cell research by pro-life conservatives, I would ask were they voting as a “politician” running for re-election or as a pro-life conservative. In other words, did the walk match the talk ?

Now, I am reminded of the age of the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. Which of the Kings of these Kingdoms brought back the worship of HaShem, reading of the Law and repentance, and the participation and celebration of the Feasts of the Lord ? Those decisions that were in-line with God’s will and Word were “moral” and they were initiated by the King – the ruling leader – who did not “do evil in the eyes of the LORD”. When this happened, there was peace and plenty. If morality doesn’t flow down from the leaders of a nation, the nation is doomed and its citizens will suffer. We may be an affluent nation but our citizens are suffering. The worse of the suffering is the idolatry that is promoted by Government policies and decisions that encourage the vulnerable to place their trust in big Government and not in God.