One of the major issues arrising in the NEW America is the ability to incorporate science and religion. I am in the biotechnology field working with human tissues for production of pharmaceutical drugs. I am requesting that the FAMUAN publish this artice written by myself to inform the scientific student body and faculty about the realm of science and religion.
Until the events of September 11, 2001 came along and swept everything else out of the news, one of the issues in the spotlight was the debate over stem cell research and the use of cells from human embryos. As colossal as this tragedy is, there are other pressing issues that need our attention, and I believe this is one of them. I would also like to caution that I am going to be talking about some issues that are not necessarily appealing to most and offensive to others.
The 21st century brings with it a brave new world of technology. We have technological capabilities that were probably beyond the wildest fantasies of our ancestors only a few hundred years ago. We can send people to the Moon. Ordinary citizens, not just wealthy ones, can sit in an environment as comfortable as their living room at home while traveling ten miles a minute through air; thin to breath and 60 degrees below zero. We have desktop computers that can do 1 billion calculations every second. We can instantly communicate voice, data, or pictures to any spot on the globe. We can extend life, and we can manipulate the building blocks of life itself. A visitor from another century would probably say “we can play God.”
With these technological capabilities, especially ones in the bio-medical arena, come moral questions and dilemmas that could never have been imagined by chazal, the rabbis of 1,500 or more years ago whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud. How can we possibly find guidance today in their writings for questions they never could have imagined?The answer to this question is that we most certainly can find guidance in ancient texts to modern questions. This is the essence of what has kept Judaism alive as a living religion, an ability to adapt our ancient teachings to the modern world. To accept certain principles, certain values, as eternal and from God, and to apply those moral values to contemporary circumstances.
There are religious traditions that have felt threatened by science. That have felt the need to disagree with science, to deny science if it seems to conflict with scripture. Galileo would not have had the same problem within the Jewish community. There are many possible Jewish responses to advances in knowledge in scientific fields, but in general the Jewish response is to accept what science has to teach us, and reinterpret our texts in that light if necessary.
You can find Jewish scholars who sound like Christian fundamentalists: they will say the world is really 5,762 years old, and God simply created the world in such a way as to make it look older, for His own mysterious purposes. Far more common, however, is the view that we are not supposed to interpret Torah so literally. That when we study science, this too is Torah. We are studying the mysterious way in which God created the Universe.Maimonides, one of our greatest sages who lived almost 1,000 years ago says that anyone who takes the Torah literally is distorting the Torah. We have to interpret the Torah, and we have to understand it metaphorically. If you understand the Torah as speaking metaphorically, there is no problem with reconciling the biblical stories with what we learn scientifically. Interestingly enough, the biblical story of creation more or less parallels the scientific story of creation. The things created on the later days are indeed things that would have evolved out of what was created earlier.
Science is great at answering nuts and bolts practical questions. How is the world put together? How does the world function? But it cannot provide answers to moral, ethical, or aesthetic questions. In the book of Genesis it says “And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creeps upon the earth after its kind; and God saw that it was good.” Science can now tell us a lot about the process of how God did this act of creation, how one species evolved from another. But science cannot tell us that “it was good.” The “how” questions are the realm of science. The “why” questions are the realm of religion.There are scientists who claim that science can provide everything, even a basis for ethics. Dr. Norm Hall wrote “Science has succeeded as a cooperative human effort by asserting the belief that the universe can only be understood through the values of integrity and truth-telling. In the process it has become a system of values, and it has provided humankind with a language which transcends cultural boundaries and connects us in a highly satisfying way to all the observable universe. It has the potential to be used as the basis for a workable and profoundly satisfying system of ethics.”
Unfortunately, ethical systems based on science generally seem to be profoundly lacking in, well, ethics. You look at evolution, and the ethics you would derive is “survival of the fittest.” Eugenics is a good thing. Hitler based his ethics on “science,” to create a better race.
It is not rational, and therefore not terribly scientific, to care about what happens to weak, non-contributing members of society. Science will not tell us we are all created in God’s image. Science will tell us we are created very differently and should be treated differently.
No, science and religion need to co-exist. The one needs to inform the other. Just as religious fundamentalists are wrong when they try to deny science completely, atheist scientists are wrong when they try to deny religion completely. And I use the term “atheist scientists” advisedly: a recent survey having showed that the percentage of scientists who believe in God, about 40%, has remained relatively constant over the last 100 years. All of our scientific progress in understanding the universe has not led more scientists to atheism. Many, like Einstein did, marvel in the intricacy of God’s creations.Even if you don’t believe in God, religious values in the ethical realm are tremendously valuable: they represent thousands of years of the collected wisdom of some of the best and brightest minds in the world. Many cultures throughout the ages have placed great value on the kind of questions theologians struggle with, and consequently some of their best thinkers have worked on these issues.My objective is not so much to answer a single question-does Judaism permit research using fetal stem cells-as it is to share with you several principles that I believe everyone should know, which can be applied in a variety of situations. An important question in many of these debates is what is life? When does life begin, and when does life end? Some religions, like Catholicism, posit that life begins at conception, and the soul enters the body at the moment of conception. Many religions hold that life ends when heartbeat and breathing cease.
Judaism acknowledges that life is more complicated than this. Life is not a digital phenomenon, this instant alive, this instant not alive. We gradually come into life, and we gradually fade out from life. For halachic (legal) purposes there are certain defined transition periods.
We know from the Torah that a fetus is not a life with all the same status of a person who has been born. In Exodus it is written “If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” We know from elsewhere that the punishment for murdering someone is death; therefore we see that causing a woman to miscarry is not considered “murder” in the same way it is for killing someone who has been born.In the Talmud the stages of coming into life start at conception, at which point the embryo is considered a potential person. However, for the first 40 days the embryo is considered to be like “mere water.” After 40 days the fetus has more rights. For this reason, many authorities would say that if an abortion needs to be performed for medical reasons, it should be as early as possible.
Up until the time of birth, the fetus has a lesser status than other people such as the mother, as discussed above. Consequently, if in a very difficult childbirth a choice must be made between saving the mother and saving the child, the mother takes precedence.All of this changes at the moment of birth, which the rabbis in the Talmud defined as when the head emerges. The Mishnah in Ohalot says: “If a woman is in difficulty during childbirth, it is permissible to destroy the fetus surgically because her life comes first. If, however, the head of the fetus has already been delivered, then it is forbidden to intercede even though it may cost the life of the mother. The fetus is now an infant with the ability for independent life. Therefore, we do not sacrifice one life to save another.” There is however, also a principal that if someone is pursuing you to kill you, you are allowed to kill them first in self defense. This principal is used by rabbinic authorities today in Israel to permit killing terrorists who are planning attacks in Israel. The Talmud in Sanhedrin poses the question: “Why should you not sacrifice the infant even though the head has already been presented, since this infant is endangering the life of the mother? Is not the infant, then, a rodef [pursuer]? The law of the pursuer should apply, which is to kill the pursuer in order to save the life of the victim.” The Talmud answers: “No, Heaven is the pursuer.” In other words, this is an act of God, and you should not consider the fetus an attacker. While the child is in the uterine environment, totally dependent on the mother’s life yet threatening it, we classify the fetus as a pursuer. According to Maimonides while the child is inside the mother, it is totally dependent on the mother. If the mother dies, the fetus would die too. Therefore it makes sense to give the mother priority, because she is the source of life for the fetus as well. Once the fetus is born, this is no longer true and the infant has all the rights of any other person, including the right to life.We can see from the preceding, that despite the fact that many Jews support the liberal “pro-choice” agenda, Judaism itself would only allow abortion when there is a threat to the mother. Most interpretations would also allow abortions where the mental health of the mother would be threatened by carrying the baby to term.Let’s apply what we know to the question of stem cell research. First, we have to understand what stem cell research is. My apologies in advance to any doctors or biologists who are reading this article for my simplification of the subject.
One of the miracles of how we develop from the moment of conception to people is the transition from a blob of cells which are all identical to each other, to an organism filled with different parts. Stem cells are cells which have the potential to become different things. There are different categories of stem cells. The fertilized egg is a totipotent stem cell: it can become anything. As the egg divides, the outer cells develop into cells that can form the placenta and other support structure, and the inner cells for the most part become the fetus. These cells are called pluripotent because they can no longer become absolutely anything, they are starting to have some specialization. At the next stage we have multi-potent stem cells, for example blood stem cells, which can become a variety of different kinds of cells related blood: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, etc. While totipotent and pluripotent stem cells are only found in embryos, multipotent stem cells are also found in adults; we all have blood stem cells in our bone marrow that produce new blood.Given their unique characteristics, pluripotent stem cells are incredibly valuable in research, and potentially could revolutionize the treatment of many illnesses, including many of which are currently considered incurable. Some of the diseases and conditions which could possibly be treated by pluripotent cells stimulated to grow into specialized cells include Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched by this innovation.
Failing hearts could be strengthened with heart muscle cells grown from human pluripotent stem cells. Preliminary work in mice and other animals has demonstrated that healthy heart muscle cells transplanted into the heart successfully repopulate the heart tissue and work together with the host cells. These experiments show that this type of transplantation is feasible.
Pluripotent stem cells potentially offer a true cure for Type I diabetes. Type I diabetes results from a disruption in the production of insulin by specialized pancreatic cells called islet cells. Islet cell lines derived from human pluripotent stem cells could be used for diabetes research and, ultimately, for transplantation.
For some of these innovations, tissue rejection is a possible issue; one way of solving this problem would use a technique somatic cell nuclear transfer, which to this lay person seems to be a combination of stem cells with cloning-you would end up with tissues identical to your own.
There have been two different approaches to isolating pluripotent stem cells. In one approach cells are taken at the blastocyst stage from eggs that were embryos that were created in a test tube. The blastocyst stage does not last long; the fertilized egg becomes a blastocyst at around 4-5 days, and is only a blastocyst for another few days before becoming an embryo. The second approach involves extracting cells from fetal tissue from terminated pregnancies.
You may have heard in the debates that we should only use adult stem cells; others support stem cell research only from embryos that were created for other purposes and would otherwise be destroyed. The scientists involved say that while adult stem cells hold promise, there are many limitations to them, and embryonic stem cells could almost undoubtedly bring us cures to many diseases much faster.
In July President Bush decided to allow Federally funded stem cell research that does not involve the creation or destruction of any embryos: scientists are limited to stem cell colonies already in test tubes.
The Pope has vigorously denounced stem cell research. “A free and virtuous society, which America aspires to be, must reject practices that devalue and violate human life at any stage, from conception to natural death,” the Pope said in a statement after meeting Bush a few months ago. The pontiff cited the creation of embryos for research purposes as an evil akin to euthanasia and the killing of babies. Given what we now know about the halachic principles and technology involved, what would Jewish law say about stem cell research?There is substantial support throughout the Jewish community, including from strictly Orthodox poskim, for stem cell research that does not involve creating new embryos for the purpose. If we use cells from aborted fetuses, or from excess embryos created in fertility clinics it’s comparable to organ donation, where you give your cells to help someone else live.
It would be more difficult to justify intentionally fertilizing eggs in a test tube simply to grow blastocysts and extract the pluripotent stem cells. While under Jewish law, creating blastocysts for research purposes in no way is an “evil akin to euthanasia and the killing of babies,” from the moment of conception there is a potential for human life, which is of significance. One could argue that under Jewish law, the blastocysts, being less than 40 days old, are not considered much more than water. They are certainly not considered in remotely the same category as babies. Not only are blastocysts not viable on their own, if left in the test tube without being implanted in a woman, they will not develop into babies, or into anything else.You could argue that until the cells are implanted in a woman, they are not even the kind of “potential life” that the Talmud uses to describe embryos less than 40 days old. Given the enormous potential that stem cell research affords to save lives, we clearly should support stem cell research from excess embryos in fertility clinics or aborted fetuses. If there was a great scientific need, creating blastocysts for research purposes would be in a grey area, where some principles could be applied to permit it, and others to forbid it.
One of the things I love about Judaism is that it does not try to reduce a complex reality to simplistic answers. When confronted with life and death issues, we acknowledge that there are competing priorities, and that in each situation we have to weigh different values against each other to arrive at the ethical solution. We will all be confronted with issues of life and death; the wisdom of our tradition can help us when it comes time to make difficult decisions about our lives or the lives of our loved ones.
Author: W. De’Marco Whyte, Jr.1999 Graduate of Florida A&M UniversityCollege of Arts & Sciences