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Stem Cell Research

What are the Jewish texts and values underlying the resolution on stem cell research?

Jewish tradition teaches us that preserving life and promoting health are among the most precious of values. These values have informed our affirmative commitment to medical science throughout the ages. Judaism has always encouraged scientific and medical advances. As Nachmanides taught, the practice of healing is not merely a profession, it is a mitzvah, a righteous obligation. A recent CCAR responsum applies this principle to human stem cell research: "If we define the administration of lifesaving medical therapy aspikuach nefesh, we should not forget that physicians could not save lives were it not for the extensive scientific research upon which our contemporary practice of medicine is based. Since research into human stem cells partakes of the mitzvah, of healing, surely our society ought to support it" (CCAR Responsum 5761.7, Human Stem Cell Research, Rabbi Mark Washofsky).

Stem cell research holds the promise of finding new and effective treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injuries, and certain types of cancers. The moral imperative to pursue stem cell research is clear; it is an embodiment of the mitzvah, of healing. Our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill, and "when one delays in doing so, it is as if he has shed blood" (Shulchan Aruch, Yorei De`ah 336:1).

Why is it important for the Union for Reform Judaism to speak out about stem cell research now

Stem cell research involves cells that can potentially develop into any kind of cell, tissue, or organ in the body ("totipotent stem cells") and that may one day soon be able to replace damaged or sick cells in a patient with an injury or degenerative disease. Totipotent stem cells are commonly obtained by using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) technology (therapeutic cloning), which allows scientists to create more stem cells with which to conduct research. Creation of stem cells through this technique is the best way to advance this crucial research.

Our voice is critical in the political debate that has ensued over the use of SCNT technology to produce stem cells for research. It has been challenged by those who argue that stem cells cannot be obtained without terminating the embryonic growth, which, if allowed to continue, could become a fetus. Currently, the United States federal government allows for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research but only on sixty existing germlines (i.e., self-sustaining colonies of cells derived from destroyed embryos that scientists have already begun to study). This policy stops short of allowing federal funding for research using stem cells derived from frozen embryos that have not been studied(about 100,000 of which exist at fertility labs across the country). The creation of additional germlines would allow more scientists to conduct stem cell research, but because the technology has become the subject of political debate it requires our vocal support.

What action is required?

The resolution calls upon individuals and congregations to support research and government funding using both adult and embryonic stem cells, in addition to the existing lines currently approved for funding by the United States and Canadian governments, and to oppose efforts to restrict or penalize scientists, clinicians, or patients for participating in stem cell research and SCNT technology for therapeutic purposes. As these issues play out in the political arena, it is critical that we support appropriate legislative and executive actions that will encourage and facilitate this life-saving technology and articulate that support as a reflection of our deeply held beliefs about the importance of the mitzvah of healing