Stem Cells, Cloning, and Judaism

Sermon given September 14, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Cloning sure would be convenient, wouldn’t it? I would love to be both a full-time, stay-at-home father and husband and a full-time Rabbi. Actually, being a full time father and husband requires two of me, and being a full-time Rabbi may require even more, so what I really need is four or five clones of myself. An added benefit would be my ability to blame another one of me if I did something wrong! And what an ego trip: I could have a child exactly like me. Come to think of it, that would be annoying. The world is much better off with Robert, a child who has many of characteristics of Toni, some of my own, and just enough of himself to be entirely different from either one of us.

All kidding aside, cloning is a complex issue. The idea is that scientists could create a baby, using the genetic material of just one person, rather than two parents. Though a human being has not yet been cloned, we no longer treat the matter as science fiction. No matter what laws are passed, irrespective of the weight of public opinion and moral discourse, human clones may well become known to us in our lifetime.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, our international organization of the Reform Rabbinate, acknowledged that fact twenty-three years ago. As early as 1978, an official committee of Reform Rabbis authored an essay about whether or not a clone would have a soul. They concluded that it would. Despite possessing genes identical to those of another person, the Rabbis declared that the clone would be an individual, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities pertaining to all human beings. Making this determination, those Rabbis stated, in a matter of fact tone, that human cloning would come. Now, human cloning may be upon us. Would Judaism have us stand idly by, without comment, simply acknowledging that one can not stop progress?

Those who favor human cloning offer several arguments. First, they tell us that cloning is a fertility treatment for women do not make eggs that can be used for reproduction. Here’s how it works: An egg, donated by another woman, is implanted with the genes from a cell of either the prospective mother or father. Cloning would allow for these parents to produce a child, without using any of the genes of the other woman who provided the egg. The couple could have their own baby, technically a clone of either the father or mother, carried through pregnancy by the mother, without any genetic traits of a woman who would not be part of the baby’s life. That alternative would clearly be attractive to many people.

Others favor cloning as a method of treating illness. If a person suffers from a devastating disease, a transplant may be necessary. Finding a match for a transplant is often very difficult, and sometimes impossible. Each year, countless people die, awaiting bone marrow or some other organ from an appropriate donor. Cloning could make well-matched cells, tissue and marrow much easier to find.

These arguments are rather compelling to the Jewish mind. We all know that almost any Jewish law may be broken in order to save a life. Therefore, even if cloning were otherwise forbidden, it might be permitted to save the life of a person who is ill. Moreover, Rabbis of every stream of Judaism have almost universally approved nearly every fertility treatment imagined. Some Orthodox communities have established their own fertility clinics, to facilitate the fulfillment of the mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply. Bringing another Jewish chid into the world, like saving a life, has often been viewed as a positive goal that justifies a wide variety of methods and means.

And yet, our tradition gives us reason for pause. The Torah forbids excessive tampering with the natural process of fertilization. In farming and animal husbandry, cross-breeding is generally prohibited. Moreover, cloning is not merely another fertility treatment. Rabbis have sanctioned artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and even the use of donated eggs and sperm, in many cases. However, all those methods call for the creation of an entirely unique human being, using the genetic material of one male parent and one female parent. Worst of all, responsible scientists acknowledge that most mammal cloning experiments to date have resulted in the death of the mother, the death of the fetus, or the gross deformity of the clone. Judaism would never sanction our taking such unconscionable risks with human beings. Therefore, we are pleased that our Federal government has enacted laws to outlaw human cloning.

On the other hand, some cloning research has nothing to do with creating an entire person or even an entire animal. Instead, some scientists propose to employ the principles of cloning to create cells and tissue that could offer tremendous healing potential. Those who argue that all cloning is alike are wrong. Others argue that, once we permit any cloning, we will be on a “slippery slope” toward full human cloning, which need not be the case.

God has created human beings with incredible brain-power, with limitless creativity, and with the drive to save lives. Some have employed our human powers to bring destruction to the world. Others would grandstand, touting procedures that are so dangerous as to be deadly. But let no government prevent God from giving men and women the power to save lives through new technologies and new treatments. Cloning research, as opposed to cloning an actual human being, may save lives. Morally, no government has the right to overthrow God by outlawing potentially life-saving therapy.

Even more than cloning, we heard about stem-cells this past summer. For weeks, even months, the President of the United States struggled with what he called a grave moral dilemma. In the end, he proposed a solution that some viewed as downright Solomonic in its wisdom. Many, though, criticized the President for abandoning his most basic principles. Still others argued that he had not gone far enough. What would the Rabbis say?

Since nobody argues about the appropriateness of using adult stem cells, the stem cells in question are harvested from embryos that are just a few days old. The human embryo must be destroyed in order to take its stem cells, which most scientists say are much more useful than adult stem cells. Promising research indicates that these stem cells may lead to cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s Disease and other debilitating and life-threatening ailments. The question is whether we may destroy a human embryo, for the potential of saving a living human being.

For Jews, the question is not nearly as difficult as it was for the President. President Bush believes that an embryo is a person, from the moment of conception. Judaism teaches us something very different. In fact, according to our tradition, a person becomes a person, only upon birth. Therefore, according to Judaism, destroying a days-old embryo is not murder.

On the other hand, Judaism does not permit us to destroy a fetus for no reason, or for a frivolous reason. We agree with those who say that a fetus is potential human life, and therefore must be treated carefully, and with respect.

Let us look at the source of the embryos being used. Almost all are left over from in vitro fertilization. Often, in that process, a dozen or more embryos may be created. Prudent physicians will not transfer so many embryos into a woman’s uterus. Instead, a few may be implanted, and the rest frozen. God willing, the woman becomes pregnant, and bares a healthy child. Whether she has borne a child or failed to get pregnant, she may again want to be pregnant later. Some of the frozen embryos may then be transferred into her uterus. Eventually, though, she may end up with more frozen embryos than she will never want to have transferred into her uterus. Tens of thousands of these embryos exist in this country. Never having been implanted in a woman’s uterus, Jewish law does not even accord these embryos the limited status of an ordinary fetus. And yet, flushing them down the sink seems to dishonor their potential for human life.

Instead, scientists propose to use those embryos for the possibility of saving human life, of relieving the suffering of illness and devastating injury. Even though the destruction of the embryo may be a sin, that act is massively overridden by the drive to save another life. Judaism permits, and even requires, that we set aside the laws of Sabbath observance to save another life. Judaism permits, and even requires, that we eat on Yom Kippur, even forbidden food, if necessary to save a life. Surely, Judaism permits us to harvest the stem cells of human embryos, to conduct vital medical research, to save human life.

In Judaism, there is no justification for the President’s decision, limiting research only to those stem cell lines already taken from previously-destroyed embryos. And yet, we must commend the President for his personal decision. He has struggled with the teachings of his faith, as we struggle with ours. He has made a different decision; were his decision entirely a personal one, we would deeply respect it.

And yet, in America, the policies of our nation must not be fixed by the particular religious feelings of one man, even if he is the President of the United States. We are grateful that the President did not ban stem cell research altogether, but we must hold him accountable for lives that could have been saved, but which now will be lost, because of his particular religious convictions, imposed upon a nation.

At the same time, we would not want to impose our beliefs upon the nation. If parents do not want their embryos used for stem cell research, nobody should force them. If a scientist does not want to engage in embryonic stem cell research, that is the scientist’s prerogative. But let not the politics of religion stand in the way of all Americans’ access to cures for devastating diseases.

In the days and weeks ahead, we shall ask God to record our names in the Book of Life for a good year. Repeatedly, we will extol our God of life. These days, in America, the term “pro-life,” is misused to deny a woman’s sovereignty over her own body. In fact, the term “pro-life” has even been coopted by those who oppose life-saving stem cell research. Let there be no mistake. Judaism teaches a real pro-life lesson. Stem cell research is pro-life, as it strives to find healing for millions of afflicted men, women and children throughout the world. May we be a light to our nation, as we teach that God, too, permits the sacrifice of embryos, for life