Q. What is the Jewish perspective on stem cell research?
A. First let me offer some introductory comments. For Judaism, life is God’s greatest gift. At Creation, God formed man and breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). Reflecting on himself, man eventually realised what a privilege it was to have been created in an act of Divine love (Avot 3:14). Hence the b’rachah, asher yatzar (cf. Psalm 139:14), which recognises that the human body is a marvel of intricacy and acknowledges that if any part of the body is blocked, it “would be impossible to survive and to stand before God”.
It is not only our physical but our spiritual self which is a Divine creation, and our God-given task is to help perfect the work of creation. This cannot be achieved unless we take care of body and soul (Deut. 4:15) and not wilfully take risks, endanger ourselves or compromise the sanctity and integrity of life. Whatever we can do to live longer and better must be done. In this respect scientists hold out hope that stem cell research will be able to enhance life and overcome diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases.
Stem cells can come from adults, but the debate in recent years has largely focussed on the use of pre-embryos left over from IVF attempts and not implanted in a woman. What is the status of the embryo and the pre-embryo? An embryo is not yet a person, though it has the potential to become a person. To destroy it has serious moral consequences, though halachah does not regard it as murder. Hence there are certain circumstances in which halachah would sanction abortion, but not abortion on demand.
If, however, we are speaking about the pre-embryo stage, Jewish law has a “before 40 days” principle whereby the pre-embryo is described as mayim b’alma, “mere water”, and to use a surplus pre-embryo for medical research that will save life is not halachically prohibited. The Beth Din of America made this point in a ruling some years ago.
It would be a different matter to create embryos specifically for the purpose of destroying them and this would be regarded as a threat to the sanctity of life and its creation. The whole area needs to be controlled and monitored by adequate safeguards.