Rabbi Avi Shafran: Let my scientists go!


Back on April 13, in the spirit, perhaps, of the Pesach 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’ 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 leapt 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 chartumim – the scientists of his day, one might say – were profoundly unconcerned with either the value of human life or moral imperatives.


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