By David Ellenson
Recent advances claimed by South Korean scientists have placed the national debate regarding stem cell research and embryonic cloning center stage in the political arena again. Many opponents maintain that stem cell research as well as cloning are always "morally wrong" because such research and cloning - in their opinion - diminishes respect for human life by reducing human life "to a mere commodity."
Spokesmen for conservative religious groups regularly advance these negative standpoints, and their influence on the public sector has often been decisive in shaping positions the Bush administration has adopted on these matters.
The positive embrace Judaism displays toward medicine radically distinct from the positions that many conservative Christian religious groups advocate on these questions. Jewish religious tradition teaches that God sanctions medical science and applauds all active medical efforts to ameliorate the physical condition of humanity. All medical treatment tries to manipulate the natural order for human ends, and Jewish religious tradition applauds this as a good.
While Judaism posits that the embryo should be treated with reverence as the embryo has the potential to develop into human life, Jewish religious tradition also teaches that the embryo has not yet achieved such status. Judaism does not accord the embryo the absolute status of inviolability that Judaism would confer upon more evolved forms of life. The destruction of an embryo can never be construed as murder from a Jewish ethical viewpoint. Because embryonic stem cell research provides the promise of maximizing medical benefits for the living, criticisms that claim that such research leads to a diminution of respect for human life cannot be maintained. Judaism heralds such research, for these investigations seek to increase the quality and lessen the pain of life for the diseased and the healthy alike.
Embryonic stem cell research no more tampers with the natural order than any other medical investigation. Genetically based diseases such as hemophilia, diabetes, sickle cell anemia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), Tay-Sachs disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other illnesses may one day be cured as a result of these medical-scientific labors.
Most Jewish religious leaders across denominational lines therefore abjure the absolutist stance many Christian groups bring to the issues of stem cell research and what has been labeled "therapeutic cloning." While complete human cloning would not be embraced, stem cell research and a cloning of embryos that offers the possibility of healing for hundreds of millions of people clearly offer the promise of elevating human dignity and health, and cannot be seen apart from this worthy goal. The priority assigned life over potential life, as well as the orientation toward healing that inform the Jewish religious tradition, provide our society with powerful ethical arguments for celebrating developments in the field of embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.
Advances in these areas should be praised, and restraints currently imposed upon this field of medical investigation should be lifted on religious as well as secular grounds so that many diseases that cruelly afflict and cause suffering to so many of the ill and their caregivers might one day be eliminated.
Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
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