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Jewish Medical Ethics: The Ethics of Embryo Research

Recent research suggests that human embryos may be an ideal source of "stem cells," which can be grown into replacement tissues for transplantation into people with chronic diseases, whose own cells are dying. Scientists want to collect these cells from embryos that are to be discarded by fertility clinics.

Since 1995, however, Congress has banned the use of federal funds for research in which human embryos are destroyed. This ban has so far precluded the vast majority of academic scientists from pursuing human stem cell research.

Now that may change. In a report to be released this month, the presidentially appointed National Bioethics Advisory Commission will recommend that Congress ease its embryo research ban to allow federally funded stem cell researchers to destroy human embryos donated by parents who have completed their fertility treatments.

The ethics commission held a one-day workshop at Georgetown University last month to hear religious leaders' opinions about the morality of such research. The speakers did not officially represent their denominations, but their personal comments offer insights into how some of the world's religions are responding to the prospect of human embryo research.

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy, University of Judaism, Bel Air, Calif.:

The Jewish tradition accepts both natural and artificial means to overcome illness. Physicians are the agents and partners of God in the ongoing act of healing . . . . We have a duty to God to develop and use any therapies that can aid us in taking care of our bodies, which ultimately belong to God. [But] we are not God. We are not omniscient, as God is, and so we must take whatever precautions we can to ensure that our actions do not harm ourselves or our world in the very effort to improve them. A certain epistemological humility, in other words, must pervade whatever we do, especially when we are pushing the scientific envelope, as we are in stem cell research. We are, as Genesis says, supposed to work the world and preserve it; it is that balance that is our divine duty.

Genetic materials outside the uterus have no legal status in Jewish law, for they are not even a part of a human being until implanted in a woman's womb and even then, during the first 40 days of gestation, their status is "as if they were simply water." As a result, frozen embryos may be discarded or used for reasonable purposes, and so may stem cells procured from them.

Sources: Washington Post, (June 13, 1999)