O.U. Keeping Quiet in Stem Cell Debate

By Steven I. Weiss

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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With embryonic stem cell research re-emerging as a matter of contentious ethical and political debate, the country’s largest Orthodox organization has kept out of the fight, though it opposes President Bush on the issue.

The president’s August 2001 decision to limit federal funding for stem-cell research has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks by many politicians and scientists. In April, 206 members of Congress signed a letter calling on the president to “expand the current federal policy concerning embryonic stem cell research” — a view that was echoed in a speech this month by former First Lady Nancy Reagan. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and White House ally, has also declared that he is seeking a review of Bush’s policy, which critics say is hampering the key to treating currently incurable diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

In a nationally televised address almost three years ago, Bush announced that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research would be limited to those cell lines already available to researchers, generally assumed to number approximately 60. But in years since, it has become clear that the president and his scientific advisers vastly overestimated the national store of cell lines.

Among those calling for a new policy are several members of a panel that helped the Orthodox Union (O.U.) and Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) draft a statement in support of stem-cell research just one month before Bush announced his restrictions in 2001. But the O.U., which has developed good relations with the White House while rallying to Bush’s side on many controversial fronts, has stayed out of the latest round of the stem-cell debate.

The O.U.’s Washington-based director of public policy, Nathan Diament, said the organization’s decision to mute its opposition to Bush on stem cells is not a matter of currying political favor. Instead, he argued, it would be a futile waste of limited resources to lobby the White House on an issue about which Bush shows no signs of changing his mind.

“It’s pretty clear the president is not going to change his policy,” said Diament, who served on the O.U.-RCA panel. Referring to the panel’s policy statement, Diament added, “We made him aware of our perspective [in 2001]…. There’s not much more that we can do.”

Still, Diament hinted at a plan for future action, but declined to discuss details.

The 13-person panel, which comprised scientists, rabbinic legal scholars and philosophers, wrote Bush in July 2001, arguing that stem-cell research “ought to be pursued since it does not require or encourage the destruction of life in the process.” The panel, which has not reconvened since, failed to issue a response after Bush announced his policy a month later.

Diament did voice some trepidation to the media when Bush first announced his policy in 2001, but suggested that it was a reasonable starting point for government regulation. When asked this week about claims that Bush’s allegations about 60 cell lines have proved misleading, Diament said, “I’m not an expert on the science.”

But two scientists who served on the O.U.-RCA panel, Rabbi Moshe Tendler and Feige Kaplan, told the Forward that the O.U. should be more aggressive in speaking out on the issue.

Tendler, a biology professor and religious instructor at Yeshiva University, seems to be Bush’s harshest critic on the panel. The rabbi-biologist told the Forward he has “great concern over the fact that the Catholic Church has been successful in getting President Bush not only to not support [its position], but to make all sorts of research illegal.”

Christian conservatives argue that even a days-old embryo made in a test tube should be considered a human life and hence off limits to researchers.

While curtailing stem-cell research, Tendler said, the administration has “misled” the public and shut down the “most effective avenue for research, namely federal money.”

Though less stinging in her critique of the administration, Kaplan, a professor of human genetics at McGill University, told the Forward “there’s no question that the lines that were existent were not going to be sufficient.”

“I would’ve disagreed with [Bush’s policy], then,” Kaplan said. “I disagree with it even more strongly now.”

One member of the panel, John Loike, a research scientist at Columbia University, sounded a more optimistic note. He argued that privately funded research has helped fill the gap left by cuts in federal funding. Loike pointed to Harvard University’s development of nearly 20 new cell lines as evidence that “the acquisition of knowledge is going to go on,” even though it may be slowed by a lack of federal funding. Loike also pointed to scientific innovations that could allow for additional research, while alleviating the ethical questions posed by the scientific use of embryonic stem cells. He referred to parthenogenesis, which is “a way to generate stem cells, which doesn’t involve fertilization.” Through utilization of parthenogenesis and other methods, Loike said, “all the ethical issues are going to fall by the wayside.”

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