Friday, May 08, 2009

Embryonic Stem Cells: Ideology vs. Morality


Rabbi Avi Shafran

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.]

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